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The Band's Visit

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 9, 2016

The Cast
Photo by Ahron R. Foster

It's a unique characteristic of art that it's capable of being "great" without actually being "good." Such a description certainly applies to The Band's Visit, the new musical by Itamar Moses and David Yazbek that just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater. It is everything the best musicals typically aren't—predictable, shticky, limited of focus—while also unlocking the heart and wonder that the canon's most legendary installments manage. It's totally off-putting yet ultimately enveloping, microscopic and as expansive as the human condition. It works feverishly to make you hate it, but in the end it garners your love just the same.

Whether the injecting of such complexities was intentional or happy happenstance given the subject matter is a difficult thing to know for sure. But to use a writhing mass of contradictions to represent the eternal unrest between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East is strangely appropriate—it is a conflict that is always refashioning its mass, shape, and substance. The show, which has been based fairly faithfully on the 2007 Israeli film by Eran Kolirin, examines a day or so of it, and by extension a lot more, by both overstating and understating its case in the first and last words: "Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn't hear about it. It wasn't very important."

Indeed, where could the globe-spanning relevance be in the misfortune of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra failing to arrive at the Arab Culture Center to which it's been invited? After all, it is just the result of a mistake: They were on their way to the city of Petah Tikva, but through a miscommunication ended up in the tiny town of Bet Hatikva—with a B, "Like in bland / Like in basically bleak and beige and / Blah blah blah," or so a song lyric runs. With nowhere to stay and no more bus transport until the next day, how will the band ever fill the time?

By implementing sweeping change through the avenues of necessity, it turns out. The band encounters three residents who will be the catalysts for this change: Dina (Katrina Lenk), an approaching-middle-age woman of considerable spark and attractiveness; Itzik (John Cariani), a married man with a baby; and Papi (Daniel David Stewart), a young man who is trying to escape, either factually or figuratively, the prison of Bet Hatikva with a woman at his side. And with the right "outside" influences, they might transcend their circumstances: The band's conductor, Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub) takes a shining to Dina; the clarinetist Simon (Alok Tewari) bonds with Itzik, his wife (Kristen Sieh), and her father (Andrew Polk), over their divergent musical heritages; and Papi finds a much-needed wingman in Haled (Ari'el Stachel), the handsome trumpeter who has no problem with the ladies, his not-quite-foolproof pickup line ("You know Chet Baker?") notwithstanding.

What begins tentatively for them all ends triumphantly, as we witness the serene, simple connection that can form (and naturally seems to) when the politics between people falls away. There's a powerful message in terms both general and specific; as anyone knows who's looked at Facebook since the presidential election, tolerance in times of trial is often in short supply. To his credit, Moses doesn't push the message overly forcefully, as he has in some of his plays (most notably Bach at Leipzig); he lets it develop organically as the wave of transformation sweeps across the crowd. He homes in gently on people, giving both sides ample opportunity to speak and enchant the other, and keeps the dialogue simple and ornamentation free.

Yazbek's score, though, is a different matter. Though it captures the unique cultural features of the two groups, and blends it with a "working class" vibe (along the lines of his writing for The Full Monty), it's often as labored and repetitive as it is creative. "Papi Hears the Ocean," for example, is a clever and ingratiating first-person look at the boy's non-way with women, but the actual romantic centerpiece for Tewfiq and Dina is the directionless "Omar Sharif," which is made all the more plodding for its show-stopping intentions. The closest thing to an opening number, "Welcome to Nowhere," takes far longer than it needs to make its point, and doesn't expand on its ideas so much as pound them into your head.

Aside from the few diegetic interludes, the book and the songs do not play nicely together through the first two-thirds, despite the accomplished work of conductor Andrea Grody and her musicians, some of whom also play roles in the action. Numbers swirl into being temporarily, but never concretely belong—if Yazbek is trying to draw an equivalent with Bet Hatikva, he's done too good of a job.

David Cromer (Our Town, The Effect) has directed capably and inventively, finding the magic and mystery within the barrenness, with a staging that is, somehow, both constantly moving and constantly still. (These same effects are visible within the choreography from Patrick McCollum and the movement from Lee Sher.) Scott Pask's set, Sarah Laux's costumes, Tyler Micoleau's lights, and Maya Cirrocchi's projections similarly highlight the necessary contrasts that must eventually give way to understanding.

It shows up in the acting, too, which is largely exceptional: Only Shalhoub clings too closely to caricature, particularly in the opening scenes, to be taken as seriously as is later required, and he performs from a faint but detectable distance that prevents him from fully investing in Tewfiq. But Lenk is an astonishingly alluring and stalwart Dina, equal parts steel and softness; and the supporting players make just as potent contributions. I was particularly fond of the buddy-buddy chemistry between Stachel and Stewart, which, better than almost anything else, restated the central conundrum in recognizable emotional language.

By the last couple of scenes, though, Moses and Yazbek move even beyond that. Once the aftermath has hit for everyone, the electricity shoots from intermittent to transcendent, fusing in a stage- and soul-filling chorus that forces you to see how far these people and their world have come. It's musical storytelling of the rapturous, operatic sort that neither writer has heretofore proven capable of or interested in, but it's exactly what the show needs, and what we need, to end on the highest plane possible. If there's no way to define what The Band's Visit is at any given point, that it achieves greatness at the exact moment it matters most is, perhaps, the most important—and impactful—thing of all.

The Band's Visit
Through January 1, 2017
Atlantic Theater Company Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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