What happens when a lovely, low-key musical based on an offbeat Israeli film moves from Off-Broadway to a Broadway theater five times its size?
You get the same widely acclaimed show – with David Yazbek’s exquisite Middle Eastern score and delicious lyrics, a spot-on cast (12 of 14 the same) led by the incomparable Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, a story adapted by Itamar Moses that’s both doleful and droll – plus better acoustics, and better accents.
The perfected accents matter because the characters’ native languages are either Hebrew or Arabic, but they must speak to each other in not-completely-fluent English, which underlines the theme. The Band’s Visit, beneath all its whimsy and the engaging peculiarities of its individual characters, is the aching story of the universal yearning and (not always successful) struggle for communication and connection. On a second viewing, the musical feels terribly sad, but a beautiful, pleasurable sad, like a song that you can’t stop listening to.
The musical begins with a miscommunication. The unformed members of the Alexandria, Egypt Ceremonial Police Orchestra have been invited to Petah Tikva, a vibrant city near Tel Aviv, to perform at a new Arab Cultural Center. But they mispronounce the name of the town, and so wind up with a bus ticket to the isolated (fictional) town of Bet Hatikva in the middle of the desert. “There is not Arab Center here,” Dina (Lenk), explains to them. “Not Israeli Culture, not Arab, not culture at all.”
Dina, the laid-back owner of the local café, elaborates, along with her café’s lounging denizens, in “Welcome to Nowhere,” the second of Yazbek’s 13 songs:
This is Bet Hatikva with a “B”
Like in boring
Like in barren
Like in bulls..
Like in bland
Like in basically bleak and beige and
Blah blah blah
Dina finds out there’s no bus leaving for Petah Tikva until the next day, and offers to find lodging for the eight orchestra members.
“No, you’ve done too much already,” replies Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria (Shalhoub), the very formal commander of the orchestra.
“Okay,” Dina says.
There is a long pause, filled with laughter from the audience. (She eventually insists and she accepts.) It is one of the many uses of silence that director David Cromer employs, most not as a punch line, but to emphasize the awkwardness between characters – the sort of pauses that happen in real life, but which directors are normally afraid to thread throughout a Broadway musical.
And this is a Broadway musical unafraid to be different in other ways as well. Yazbek, best-known for his comic Broadway scores and lyrics for “The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” here keeps the dry wit of his lyrics but offers a new sound for Broadway, ranging from Jewish klezmer to Israeli jazz to Egyptian pop, and even a ravishing classical Middle Eastern concerto, performed by musicians (some of them members of the orchestra we see on stage) using instruments that include the oud, riq and darbouka from the Middle East (a type of stringed instrument, tambourine and drum, respectively.)
The Band’s Visit focuses on a single evening in which nothing much happens. There is even a character (Adam Kantor) who does nothing but stare at the town’s telephone booth, waiting for his far-away girlfriend to call him. Rather than the happy or tragic endings to which Broadway has made us accustomed, there are only strangers who briefly get to know each other a bit, and maybe quietly fall in love a bit — as do we.
The hilarious and sexy Ari’el Stachel stands out as Haled, the band’s trumpeter and would-be Lothario, always ready with a pick-up line, who decides to help out Papi (now portrayed by Etai Benson), who is too shy to approach the local girl: “Not break the ice, melt the ice,” Haled sings his advice. Simon (Alok Tewari), the band’s clarinetist, lodges with a married couple Iris and Itzik (Kristen Sieh and John Cariani) who no longer get along: “Time is like syrup,” Itzik sings at one point, “and I’m the bug stuck in the syrup, just kind of trying to find out what I’m doing wrong.” Visiting is Iris’s father Avrum (Andrew Polk) who still mourns the death of his wife. Avrum, himself a musician, recalls how he and his wife met ,in the catchy and heartfelt “The Beat of Your Heart.”
And then there are the scenes and songs between Dina and the Colonel, she with her Marlene Dietrich seen-it-all eyes and deadpan delivery, he with his stuffed-shirt demeanor, each with lives (as we learn slowly) that are circumscribed by their sorrows and regrets.
At one point, when Haled enters the town’s roller rink, a gun-toting security guard bars his entry, demanding he identify himself, and then prove his identity by playing something. “Okay,” Haled responds, “but I am professional…so you will have to pay me.” Papi slips in between them, and says in Hebrew: “Hey, it’s okay, he is a friend of mine, okay?” The tensions between Arabs and Israelis are thus acknowledged, like everything else in “The Band’s Visit,” in an understated way, delivering no artificial happiness but suggesting reasons to be hopeful.
The Band’s Visit is on stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre
The Band’s Visit
Music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Itamar Moses based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin.
Directed by David Cromer.
Choreography by Patrick McCollum, set design by Scott Pask, costume design by Sarah Laux, lighting design by Tyler Micoleau, sound design by Kai Harada, projection design by Maya Ciarrocchi, hair design by Charles G. LaPointe, orchestrations by Jamshied Sharifi, music supervisor Andrea Grody. Featuring Katrina Lenk, Tony Shalhoub, John Cariani, Ari’el Stachel, George Abud, Etai Benson, Adam Kantor, Andrew Polk, Bill Army, Rachel Prather, Jonathan Raviv, Sharone Sayegh, Kristen Sieh, Alok Tewari, Pomme Koch, Ahmad Maksoud, Madison Micucci and James Rana. Musicians include Andrea Grody, Alexandra Eckhardt, Ossama Farouk, Philip Mayer, Sam Sadigursky, Jeff Theiss, Harvey Valdes and David Garo Yellin. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.