Recently, I attended the American Theatre Critics Association conference in New York City, where I saw four Broadway shows for review. The first of my four reviews is “The Band’s Visit,” a new musical that opened this past Wednesday.
The man has been staring stoically at the pay phone for days now, awaiting a call. Who might be calling him? How long is he willing to wait? And most dangerously, if someone uses the phone while he waits, might his chance to reach a life-changing connection disappear?
Like so many characters in the knockout new Broadway production of “The Band’s Visit,” which opened Wednesday, Nov. 8th at the Barrymore Theatre after its off-Broadway transfer, this young man spends long stretches on the stage, staring and hoping. And like so many in this powerful story, he yearns for a connection, something that will soften the loneliness of his daily existence. And what better way to do that than with the presence of a band.
But this is no ordinary band. This is the powerfully named Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, an Egyptian band that will play a concert at the Arab cultural center in the Israeli town of Bet Hatikva. There’s only one problem – there is no such place in this town, an accident that the Bet Hatikvans must remind their reluctant guests about. Their town starts with the letter B; the town the band should have booked their bus tickets for starts with the letter P.
The band comes into a country where mutual hostility has been the way of life for years, yet there is little mention of this conflict in Berkeley native Itamar Moses’ succulent script. The play smartly focuses on the humanity of people. Granted, there are reminders of the differences that exist between the sides, and the Bet Hatikvans are skeptical about these new visitors who are dressed to the nines in perfectly pressed, powder blue military uniforms and sublimely circular hats. But with very little resistance, homes are opened and issues beneath the surface are brought forth.
There is the leader of the band, the regal Tewfiq (a beautifully nuanced and stoic performance by Tony Shalhoub), a man who speaks with a calm and respected tone and exudes appreciation for the citizens who have provided a one-night stay for his band. He befriends the lovely Dina (a transcendent and magical turn by Katrina Lenk), who owns a little café that never sees new customers, with music provided by a guy who walks by with a boombox sometimes, probably coming from a cassette tape.
The centerpiece of the production, alongside David Cromer’s magnificently smooth yet understated direction, is David Yazbek’s effectively wistful score, music that provides the longing and loss in delicious bursts of magic. One great measure of a great score is how long a song can stay with you after the curtain closes, and along with wonderful textures of rich, classical Arabic music are scrumptious ballads that capture the heart of the people. Lenk is masterful as she sings of the escapist radio of her youth in the number “Omar Sharif,” and even leading the effectively sarcastic “Welcome to Nowhere,” with probably the most pathetic final piece of choreography a Broadway tune can feature. And who can let go of the powerful payoff of a life standing in front of that phone in “Answer Me.”
Yazbek mixes songs of longing in different styles beautifully. Etai Benson as Papi is full of humor in the insecure ditty “Papi Hears the Ocean.” Benson, who is known well for those San Francisco audiences who saw plenty of “Wicked” in the late 2000’s, plays insecure with great effectiveness. And both Itzik (a gentle John Cariani) and Iris (a performance by Kristin Sieh that bubbles with tension) yearn for a life that is more than just trying to figure out how to get their baby to stop crying.
A young and debonair talent is Ari’el Stachel, who seems to do it all in this show as the young, charmingly handsome trumpetist Haled. His horrid pickup line regarding Chet Baker is hilarious, but it leads to something more later. The seductively passionate jazz song “Haled’s Tune About Love” is just all kinds of brilliant, with its wicked and witty lyrics, a song that gives Haled a mountain of substance.
In so many ways, this show is the antithesis of Broadway. It’s only real luxury seems to be a rotating stage on Scott Pask’s rustic set design, lit beautifully by Tyler Micoleau. In a panel I attended the day before with the creative team, they alluded to wing space that they now enjoyed in their Broadway transfer. But this is not a show that is loaded with bigness, rather a piece that is rooted in its story and subtlety.
There are stars all over this show, but none burn brighter than film and stage veteran Shalhoub and the relative newcomer Lenk. Her yearning is palpable, his presence is undeniable. And yet, when a critical decision is made, it is painful.
I remember when my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, she was acting in a production. The stress of getting the show off the ground nightly was taxing. But when the cast was gathered in a circle and the flutist began playing one beautiful note, her eyes closed and a calm came across her face as she rested her hands gently upon her baby, she and her unborn child the only things that mattered in the world.
That is the power of music. “The Band’s Visit” brings about this power to a town that has nothing. Yet, when it’s time for the band to leave after only one night, no one can ever be the same.
What a magical visit.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
“The Band’s Visit”
Based on the 2007 film of the same name
Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Book by Itamar Moses
Directed by David Cromer
Music Direction by Andrea Grody
Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
The Word: A musical that is so deliciously romantic, a story of longing and love
Stars: 5 out of 5
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission
The Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th Street, New York City, NY (Midtown West)
For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or visit the official website