The Band's Visit
A chance encounter between Israelis and Egyptians in the desert is the subject of Broadway's newest musical.
There's an ache in my bones that I can't quite shake after seeing The Band's Visit, the new musical by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses that has just moved to Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre. When it ran last season at Atlantic Theater Company, I loved its quiet simplicity and restraint; both rare qualities in the age of ever-larger, ever-louder musical theater. While its mere existence on Broadway brings me joy, a return visit to this story of unrequited longing fills me with a deep sadness.
It's a good kind of sadness, arriving like the memory of a long lost love — one you know you will never see again. Emotionally repressed Anglos have no single word for this sensation, but in Hebrew it is ergah (ערגה) and in Arabic, wajed (وجد). The Band's Visit activates emotions that we would normally avoid in order to push through the hectic tedium of each day. Most Broadway shows also actively eschew subjecting a paying audience to such feelings, but if we cannot explore them in the theater, where can we?
Based on Eran Kolirin's 2007 film, The Band's Visit tells the story of an Egyptian police band that is scheduled to perform a concert at the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva, Israel. A miscommunication at the bus station lands them in Bet Hatikva, a small town that definitely does not have an Arab cultural center. "Not Arab culture, not Israeli. Not culture at all," says Dina (Katrina Lenk), proprietor of the town's one café. Because Bet Hitikva has no hotel and no return buses until morning, Dina invites them to stay with her, volunteering the help of her neighbors, Itzik (John Cariani) and Papi (Etai Benson). Bandleader Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub) is hesitant to accept, but he does, setting in motion a strange and fleeting night of possibilities.
Those who got their fill of bilateral diplomacy in Oslo will be pleased to know that geopolitics remain firmly in the background of Moses's warm and witty book, which is far more concerned with the universal: The band's trumpeter, Haled (Ari'el Stachel), teaches the painfully shy Papi (an appropriately tense Etai Benson) how to talk to women: "Not break the ice, you melt the ice," he advises with cool confidence (Stachel's mischievous smile and bedroom eyes are complemented by sophisticated jazz vocals). Clarinetist Simon (Alok Tewari) becomes a sympathetic witness to Itzik's faltering marriage to Iris (Kristen Sieh, radiating suppressed rage). Over dinner with these new friends, Iris's father (a zesty Andrew Polk) shares the story of falling for his late wife to the sound of Gershwin.
Music is the international currency of love in The Band's Visit, and Yazbek accounts for that with a score that borrows liberally from disparate traditions: classical Middle Eastern scales and American jazz seamlessly fuse to create a sophisticated new sound. Through lyrics that are both clever and sincere, Yazbek gorgeously conveys a highly uncommon Broadway love story.
The chance meeting of Tewfiq and Dina has the makings of a romantic cliché, but this is no Arab-Israeli West Side Story. Sure, Shalhoub and Lenk have undeniable electricity between them. The halting poetry of Shalhoub's speech seems to transform Dina's protective ennui into girlish giddiness. As they sit on a park bench, Lenk stretches out like a happy cat waiting to be petted; meanwhile, Shalhoub keeps his hands uneasily folded on his lap. This is after she has already sung one of the most wistful and beautiful love songs ever composed for the Broadway stage: Hauntingly interpreted by Lenk, "Omar Sharif" is about the hours Dina spent as a girl watching the handsome Egyptian movie star. Has she found her Omar Sharif in Tewfiq? If only it were that simple.
While Yazbek and Moses succeed by running into emotional complexity, director David Cromer's clean and uncluttered staging with a cast of 18 allows that intricacy to shine through. Scott Pask's turntable set not only provides for speedy transitions between scenes, but also creates the sense of a world irrevocably churning forward. Sarah Laux's costumes deepen our understanding of the characters, even when half of them are in uniforms (Haled wears his policeman's coat open, with the collar popped). Tyler Nicolau's ultrafocused lighting isolates the actors in pools of light. Similarly, the shuttered windows on Pask's set illuminate as the evening progresses, and we imagine the lives of the people within — lives at least partially defined by risks not taken and love not pursued.
Those untaken roads are surely a source of regret for most people. The Band's Visit forces us to consider them. Rather than reaffirming us, it leads us to ask, "What if?" It's an unexpected and rewarding theatrical endeavor that makes The Band's Visit the most beautiful musical on Broadway, and the bravest.