The Band's Visit
It is rare and extraordinary to see a musical begin with a projected note that the story we are about to witness "wasn't very important." A habitually superlative genre, there is a reason why so many shows end their titles with exclamation points. Yet Itamar Moses and David Yazbek demonstrate that this need not be the case in their uncommonly demure The Band's Visit, now making its world premiere at Atlantic Theater Company. This charming new musical has a gentle elegance that is all too rare, making it a must-see of the off-Broadway season.
Granted, this tone may be inherent in the source material: Eran Kolirin's 2007 film is marked by nuance in performance and cinematography. A slow-boil Israeli comedy, it seems an unlikely subject for a musical adaptation, especially from Yazbek, who has tended toward more flamboyant titles like The Full Monty and the ill-fated Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Employing a distinctly Middle Eastern sound with touches of jazz, he draws thrilling musicality from The Band's Visit. Moses, who penned the smartly condensed book for the musical adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, proves to be the ideal person to adapt this tale of simple human connections triumphing over seemingly insurmountable cultural barriers.
The story takes place in Bet Hatikva, a sleepy Israeli desert town where Dina (Katrina Lenk) runs a cafe. Papi (the deliciously awkward Daniel David Stewart) and Itzik (a nonthreatening and somewhat tragic John Cariani) sit around all day at the patio tables, waiting for something interesting to finally happen. They get it when Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub) and the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrive in town. This band of seven Egyptian policemen had been invited to perform at the Arab Cultural Center at Petah Tikvah, but a miscommunication landed them here. Since there are no more buses until the morning and no hotel in town, Dina and her friends offer to host the musicians in their homes for the night.
Half of the characters speak Arabic and the other half Hebrew. They compromise on English, the lingua franca of our global era. The fact that no one seems entirely comfortable in this verbal no-man's-land is part of what makes the performances so thrillingly vulnerable.
Lenk is ultra-dry as Dina, pushing Tewfiq into an impromptu date in her own nonchalantly insistent way. Shalhoub's Tewfiq is at first stiff and mannered, pounding the second syllables of words and inventing them where they wouldn't normally exist ("wife" is pronounced "wi-uf"). His gradual softening as Dina brings down his guard in the show's most rewarding plotline. Ari'el Stachel is coolly flirtatious as Haled, the sexy young trumpeter who sees this trip to Israel as his last breath of freedom before returning to an arranged marriage in Egypt. Less is consistently more in these performances.
This is also the case with Yazbek's songs: None of them qualify as showstoppers, but all of them articulate the feeling of the moment with grace and clarity. They are occasionally very funny, like Papi's roller disco anxiety song, "Papi Hears the Ocean." Set to descending scales that conjure the image of a deflating balloon, Papi sings about how he hears waves when he talks to girls. Yazbek rhymes "I smell like falafel" with "and I feel real awful" and we cannot help but laugh.
Not that this is the kind of show that will have you rolling on the floor. Director David Cromer endows the production with an easy touch that allows you to laugh or not; the story continues regardless.
Cromer's tonal sensitivity manifests itself most clearly in the design: Scott Pask's set of concrete housing blocks with tiny little windows evokes the remote Israeli outpost. A rotating stage helps to re-create some of the sweaty lethargy of the film: The actors stand in place looking slightly despondent as the world keeps on spinning. Sarah Laux's costumes are Mediterranean casual for the Israelis, light blue uniforms for the Egyptians. Their pristine, buttoned-up quality tells us what kind of rigor Tewfiq insists upon. Tyler Micoleau's romantic lighting brings a magical quality to this nighttime frolic in the Israeli hinterlands. Everything is delightfully underscored by the actor-musicians in the cast.
There are no glory notes or sweaty dance breaks in The Band's Visit and we really don't miss them. Cromer's restrained yet deliberate production fits the story like a glove, allowing for a surprising emotional resonance from the simplest of acts. Everything culminates in the indescribably beautiful "Answer Me," a finale number in which the whole cast appears onstage, but everyone seems to be completely alone. It leaves an unforgettably bittersweet taste in our mouths that is refreshing for those of us exhausted with the hyper-processed sugar rush of Broadway.