Critic’s Notebook: How ‘The Band’s Visit’ turns song, speech and silence into stage poetry
Where do new musicals come from? For a while, the answer regularly seemed to be pop-music catalogs and movies guaranteed to put baby boomers in a nostalgic mood. Broadway became the great cultural recycle bin, a place where small imaginations could turn big profits.
In recent years, however, some of the most memorable new shows have sprung from the most unlikely of places. “Fun Home” was adapted from Alison Bechdel’s extraordinary graphic novel about growing up as a lesbian with a closeted gay father. “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s game-changer, was inspired from, of all things, Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. And “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” was derived from a slice of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”
Add “The Band’s Visit,” the exquisite new musical by composer-lyricist David Yazbek and playwright Itamar Moses, to the list of shows spun from improbable sources. Although it’s based on the screenplay for writer-director Eran Kolirin’s 2007 Israeli film, the show is hardly another instance of a movie being redeployed on stage for commercial gain.
For one thing, “The Band’s Visit,” which had its world premiere last year off-Broadway at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, isn’t a title to lure in the tourist hordes. For another, the show is far too artisanal for the Broadway assembly line.
The premise of the musical, set in 1996, doesn’t exactly scream “blockbuster.” A group of Egyptian musicians representing the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra gets stranded in a sleepy Israeli town after a pronunciation mistake sends them to Bet Hatikva instead of Petah Tikva, where they’ve been invited to perform at the Arab Cultural Center.
One letter can apparently make all the difference. In the song “Welcome to Nowhere,” Dina (Katrina Lenk), a cafe proprietor with a slinky feline manner, explains in her charmingly rough-hewn English that everybody loves Petah Tikva — “lots of fun, lots of art, lots of culture.” Bet Hativka, on the other hand, is “boring,” “barren” and “bland.”
Dina feels a pang of sympathy for the nonplussed band members, who won’t be able to catch a bus to their destination until the next day. She invites a couple of the men to say overnight at her apartment, offers the cafe as lodging to a few others and enjoins Itzik (John Cariani), a full-time idler, to take in the remainder.
Col. Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub), the solemnly dignified commander of the band, has no choice but to modestly accept her offer. He orders Haled (Ari’el Stachel), the romantic trumpet player obsessed with Chet Baker, to accompany him so that he can keep a close eye on the moony young man whose imperfect English is what led to their depending on the hospitality of strangers.
A sequence of titles projected during the overture sets the musical’s languorously sportive tone: “Once not long ago / A group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt.” These introductory lines are detonated with a kicker: “You probably didn’t hear about it. / It wasn’t very important.”
“The Band’s Visit” could be said to lack eventfulness. But something significant does occur during the orchestra’s unplanned excursion to Bet Hatikva: life. The rhythm of the storytelling is cinematic, but the musical kept evoking for me Anton Chekhov’s plays set in Russian backwaters, where an interruption in the boring, isolating routine of the characters suddenly opens a window onto their common humanity.
Movement is stylized in David Cromer’s lyrical staging. The effect is to make us aware of time operating both lazily, as the band members while away the hours in a strange land, and momentously, as the larger chronology of the lives of these Egyptian visitors and their Israeli hosts is thrown into relief by the encounter.
Moses’ book hews closely to the film. Dina offers to show Tewfiq the town at night. Her flirtatious manner makes him wary, but he’s too courteous to say no. She uses their outing to jealously antagonize a married man with whom she’s been carrying on, but she also wants to connect with this reserved gentleman who appears to be stoically bearing some terrible burden.
Their story unfolds alternately with Haled’s humorous night out at a disco roller rink with awkward Israeli singles. The musical also cuts regularly to the goings-on at Itzik’s home, where Simon (Alok Tewari), a devoted clarinetist who would also like to conduct, has found himself at the birthday dinner of Itzik’s weary wife, Iris (Kristen Sieh). She has lost patience with her unemployed husband, whose easygoing nature may be too close to that of her father, Avrum (Andrew Polk), a good-natured musician who performs at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Politics are peripheral to what transpires in these cross-cultural interactions, but it’s not as if anyone needs reminders of Middle East history. Something else takes precedence: In the company of strangers, the characters begin to see themselves anew. The sacred honor of hospitality compels patience and presence, but it’s music that ultimately dismantles barriers.
The score by Yazbek, whose Broadway work includes “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” is an insinuating mix of klezmer and American jazz, Egyptian folk and classical Arab strains, with a fleck or two of Kurt Weill. Nothing is lost in translation while instruments are played and voices take flight.
When Dina discovers the sources of grief in Tewfiq’s life, she asks him to sing to her the Arabic song he performed the night he met his wife. After Itzik and Iris have a heated argument, Simon comforts their child by playing the unfinished concerto he started as a budding musician before fatherhood imposed on him a new set of responsibilities. Haled dispenses romantic advice to Papi (Etai Benson) in song — Romeo temporarily assuming the role of a selfless Cyrano de Bergerac in solidarity with love.
Humor mingles freely with melancholy. The Telephone Guy (Adam Kantor) stands vigil at a pay phone, hurrying others away as he waits for his girl to call with the perseverance of Vladimir and Estragon in “Waiting for Godot.” When Iris apologizes to her guest for her series of emotional outbursts at Itzik, Simon reassuringly tells her, “I am married 20 years.”
“The Band’s Visit” is more music drama than splashy musical. Bells and whistles aren’t needed to rouse the audience. I was slightly resistant at first to the show’s lackadaisical rhythm, but I succumbed in short order to the poetic delicacy. More compact than “Fun Home,” “Hamilton” and “Great Comet,” this 90-minute show is every bit as resonant and original.
The ensemble brings fresh idiosyncrasy to the roles, with Lenk and Shalhoub making silence as potent as song and speech. When Dina asks Tewfiq to describe what it is like to be standing before his orchestra, he answers by conducting an invisible music that Dina begins to respond to with her own expressive gestures. The stage picture is worth more than a symphony of words.
At a time when politics is dividing us not only from each other but also from ourselves, “The Band’s Visit,” the best musical of 2017, offers balm for the breach in our souls.
Follow me @charlesmcnulty
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