In Broadway’s Gentlest Musical, Hope Strikes Up the “Band”

The season's first dose of potent theatrical magic.

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Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in "The Band's Visit." Photos: Matthew Murphy.

The wonder holds in The Band’s Visit, the musical dreamscape now on Broadway less than a year after an Off-Broadway unveiling that opened to rapturous reviews. Some wondered whether a show based on a 2007 film about a lost Egyptian military band that spends an unexpected night in a small Israeli town might be, if you’ll pardon the expression, a frame too thin for a musical. Have no fear: the plot plays out as universal and resonant. Twice I have walked out at the end of this show with renewed love for humanity, hope for the musical theater as an art form, and humming a few delicious, haunting melodies.

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Residents of Bet Hatikva at Dina’s café meet visitors.

The design of The Band’s Visit has transferred elegantly to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The shifting walls and turntable transitions designed by Scott Pask, the ethereal lighting by Tyler Micholeau and the evocative projections by Maya Ciarrocchi create a world that dances with David Yazbeck’s inventive score, Itamar Moses’ heartfelt script (based on Eran Kolirin’s original screenplay), Patrick McCollum’s subtle choreography and matchless direction by David Cromer. As in any large ensemble, there are many performances to choose from, including Tony Shalhoub’s bandleader Tewfiq and Katrina Lenk’s café owner Dina. But note that all the performer’s names are below the title. This is an ensemble, in other words, that breathes as one.

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Kristen Sieh and John Cariani.

Set in 1996, Kolirin’s original story is intensely political; it makes The Band’s Visit unusual as a musical and its deliberately gentle pace for 100 intermissionless minutes a fascinating choice. We’re in the small town of Bet Hatikva (where band members must stay overnight), not in the city of Petah Tikva (where band members were trying to go). Yet, despite such specificity, the framework of the show is actually universal: travelers pass through, and we wonder whether the townsfolk will be friendly or angry. We wonder what we will learn from them — what all people can learn from each other. One can see why Cromer, whose 2009 Off-Broadway revival of Our Town established his reputation in NYC, would be attracted to this material.

Let’s meet two members of the band. There’s Twefiq, it’s leader, given a touch of courtly formality in Shalhoub’s intense, humane performance — and, in a break with tradition, this is a leading character in a musical who barely, if ever, sings. There’s also Haled (Ari’el Stachel), who loves Chet Baker and uses it as a pick-up line and a litmus test for anyone he meets. This is to say that the effort made by all the band members just to communicate with the Israelis offers many dramatic opportunities for humor and problem solving.

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For the residents, the geopolitics beyond the borders of the town can be felt but are not necessarily discussed. Rather, the simple story and character arcs resonate on a human level. For example, will the romantic, movie-loving Dina find her Omar Sharif in Tewfiq? Will Itzik (John Cariani) and his wife Iris (Kristen Sieh) ever resolve the challenges of their young marriage and new parenthood? Will band member Simon (Alok Tewari) ever finish his gorgeous concerto? Will Haled ever find someone who knows Baker’s famous version of “My Funny Valentine”?

The journeys taken by these characters are peppered with delicate, funny, heartbreaking solos and ensemble musical pieces. “Waiting,” the opening number sung by the residents of Bet Hatikva, evokes life in rural equipoise; the closing number, “Answer Me,” beams with hope for the future between these Egyptians and Israelis — music having somehow brought them together. In between, whether sung in a song or spoken in a scene, there’s never a moment of true silence, never a moment of true stillness. “The Band’s Visit” is very much a shared, reflective inhale.

This seamless transfer from Chelsea to Broadway gives us the season’s first dose of potent theatrical magic.

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Martha Steketee
Martha Wade Steketee has worked as a court researcher, policy analyst, editor, theater critic, and dramaturg. Voting member of theater awards committees (Jeff in Chicago, Drama Desk in New York), and dramaturg who reviews scripts for theaters and festivals and collaborates with playwrights and authors on new works. Member of American Theatre Critics Association, Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, and League of Professional Theatre Women. Contributor to a range of theater publications including HowlRound, TDF Stages, Theater Pizzazz, The Brooklyn Rail, and others. Her site Urban Excavations focuses on live and filmed performance. Steketee lives in New York City.