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The Band's Visit

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - November 9, 2017

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. Scenic 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 and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Music director & additional arrangements, Andrea Grody. Orchestrations by Jamshied Sharifi. Music supervisors Andrea Grody & Dean Sharnoe. Cast: 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.
Theatre: Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub
Photo by Matthew Murphy

It's demonstrably true that people who think they're supposed to hate each other due to cultural, racial, religious, ideological, and other differences amplified by tribalism can actually like, even love each other if they have the chance to get to know each other on a personal basis. Sixty years ago, a groundbreaking musical built around this universal theme opened on Broadway: West Side Story. There are several more shining examples of other great shows that have told similar tales. And now we have a new one.

Based on Eran Kolirin's screenplay for the 2007 Israeli film of the same title, The Band's Visit is the heart-and-soul-affirming story of an Egyptian police band stranded in a remote Israeli village due to a miscommunication in their travel arrangements; they were headed to play a concert in Petah Tikva but instead wound up in Bet Hatikva, where very little goes on. As one of the locals, Papi, puts it in song, "I'm waiting, 'cause that's what we do here—same as we do everyday, for something, I don't know, to happen, you know, just something different to happen."

Well, something different happens. How will the boys from Alexandria be received by the Bet Hatikvans? Will the historical enmity between Arabs and Israelis be a big issue, a small issue, or not an issue at all during the course of their interaction? On a practical level, with nothing resembling a hotel in the vicinity and no bus out of town due till morning, where will the stranded find overnight lodgings? Book writer Itamar Moses and composer-lyricist David Yazbek brilliantly mine this setup for a musical that emanates humanity and proudly wears its heart on its sleeve without for a moment descending into bathos or manipulative sentimentality. (I don't believe the Band's Visit film attained any major level of popularity in the U.S. upon its initial release, but now that it has inspired what's sure to be a beloved musical, my bet is that lots of people are going to seek it out—kind of like Kinky Boots.)

This show is the quintessence of a skillfully wrought, perfectly calibrated ensemble piece in which all of the characters/actors and their story lines connect with the audience. If there's a central relationship here, it's that between bandleader Tewfiq, given a wonderfully subtle performance by Tony Shalhoub, and cafe owner Dina, played with complete authenticity by Katrina Lenk as equal parts cynical, yearning, and naturally alluring. The time these lonely souls spend together has a deep impact on both of them, and the resolution of their 24-hour friendship—if the word "resolution" even applies—seems exactly right.

Other members of the band affect the locals in various ways and degrees. The beautiful music and calming presence of clarinetist Simon (Alok Tewari) acts as a salve for the troubled marriage of young parents Itzik (John Cariani) and Iris (Kristen Sieh), and also brings Iris's father (Andrew Polk), a former musician, out of his shell. The smooth-talking, honey-voiced, ladies man trumpeter Haled (Ari'el Stachel) shares some of the techniques he uses in approaching women with Papi, who's romantically and sexually naive and awkward to the point of total inaction—and it works!

Directed by David Cromer with great sensitivity, if with pacing that sometimes seems a bit more leisurely than necessary, all of the actors are at one with their characters. The slow-burning chemistry between Shalhoub and Lenk is palpable; rarely does one see this sort of tentatively budding relationship so credibly and movingly charted onstage. A special nod also to the two perfectly cast members of the company who've signed on for The Band's Visit since the show's acclaimed Off-Broadway run last year at the Atlantic Theater Company: Adam Kantor is heartbreaking as "Telephone Guy," who waits with steadfast patience at what seems to be the only pay phone in the village for a call from his girlfriend that may never come; and, as the aforementioned Papi, Etai Benson offers one of the sweetest, most endearing portrayals anyone could ask for.

These are salt-of-the-earth people, brought to vibrant life in Moses' unaffected dialogue and Yazbek's music and lyrics, which display that same virtue along with great humor, empathy, and poetry as necessary. In this score, Yazbek employs Middle Eastern sounds to limn the specific milieu, much as he explored various other musical and textual idioms in bringing to life the working class Buffalo folks of The Full Monty, the French Riviera grifters of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the Spanish manics of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. In short, The Band's Visit is clearly the work of the supremely talented and versatile Yazbek while sounding bracingly different from any of his other scores. (In addition to some plot, character, and construction elements that call to mind other immortal musicals, this show incorporates snatches of two classic songs that were first heard on Broadway: Gershwin and Heyward's "Summertime," and Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine." No spoilers here as to how they're used, but you're gonna love it.)

Scenic designer Scott Pask, costume designer Sarah Laux, and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau nail the drabness of Bet Hatikva while still managing to keep things visually interesting. Concentric turntables are employed at times to move the actors and the scenery around, but less aggressively and therefore more effectively than the overkill of the recent Groundhog Day. The only really striking splashes of color in the production are the robin's-egg blue uniforms worn by the Egyptians. (The villagers think these outfits make the guys look like Michael Jackson or members of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.)

On and offstage, The Band's Visit boasts an extraordinarily impressive level of talent; several members of the company play their own instruments and/or intermittently speak convincingly in Arabic or Hebrew, on top of their acting and singing abilities. (Hats off to dialect coaches Molina R'Miki and Zohar Tirosh-Polk.) Patrick McCollum's choreography, though not extensive, is always organic. Orchestrator Jamshied Sharifi and musical director/additional arranger Andrea Grody have worked with Yazbek to create the perfect sound world for this show, and Kai Harada's sound design allows every word of the lyrics to come through 100 percent clearly without over-amplification.

Early indications are that, even in a Broadway landscape marred by far too many entertainments lacking in inspiration, heart, and intelligence, there's still an honored place for a musical like this, the basic premise of which bears more than a passing similarity to that of one of last season's hits: Come From Away, another compelling story of good people helping complete strangers stuck in their midst. That two such shows can be embraced by the theatergoing public at large is truly heartening.

I saw The Band's Visit at the end of a sorrowful and frightening week for New York City and the world, in the wake of the horrific terrorist truck attack in downtown Manhattan. Over the past few days, I've been thinking of last season's Tony-winning play Oslo, about the peace talks that led to the 1990s peace accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. And, last Friday, I was at Geffen Hall for the National Chorale's stirring performance of Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms," sung in Hebrew, during which the conductor translated for the audience the final words of the last psalm: "Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. Amen." All of which has led me to wish that hate-filled people like the man behind the wheel of that truck would spend more time in theaters and concert halls. Attending great works of art that display the better part of the human spirit is not a cure-all for society's ills, but it's an excellent first step.

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