The opening of “The Band’s Visit” at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, after a triumphant off-Broadway run last spring, is very good news for many reasons. At its best, theater helps us fill a deep-seeded need, and in these daunting times it is hard to imagine a theatergoer who will not find solace and happiness in the exquisitely rendered serenade to our shared humanity that is “The Band’s Visit.”
Faithfully based on the 2007 film of the same title, the show features a surprising and witty book by Itamar Moses and a hauntingly melodic score infused with regional world music by David Yazbek, who also wrote the smart lyrics. His uncanny way with words and music reflect and amplify the tone and mood of the story throughout.
“The Band’s Visit” is a sort of 20th-century cross-cultural “Brigadoon.” An Egyptian military orchestra mistakes the name of its intended destination in Israel and is forced to stay overnight in a desolate desert town. The town, Bet Hatikva, may be depressed, but the inhabitants are anything but a downer.
As the band negotiates their predicament under the leadership of their conductor, Tewfiq (played with perfectly calibrated restraint by Tony Shalhoub), they run into Dina, a sultry café owner (played by Katrina Lenk in a mesmerizing performance). Dina takes charge of sheltering the group as the town lacks even a single hotel. The musicians’ arrival is a mostly pleasurable novelty through which small connections of increasing significance are forged as the hours pass.
Among others, we meet a lovelorn man who keeps vigil by a public phone, a married couple fighting over employment issues, a widower who has not allowed loss or life to embitter him and an insecure suitor who can’t emerge from his internal vortex long enough to connect with anyone.
For each local’s dilemma there is the tantalizing prospect of amelioration through alchemy brought about by a member of the band. Suave ladies’ man Haled (Ari’el Stachel in a winning and layered performance) models moves to help Papi (Etai Benson), the insecure suitor, come out of his shell. Benson captures his character’s angst exactly in the song “Papi Hears The Ocean.”
Andrew Polk, as Avrum, the father-in-law of the young married couple, gives a deeply felt, yet unsentimental performance as he connects with clarinetist and stalled composer, Simon (Alok Tewari) in the sensational number “The Beat of Your Heart.” The clarinetist’s music later soothes fraught parents as much or more than their crying infant.
In return the townspeople, all of whom refreshingly look like actual people of Middle Eastern heritage as opposed to actors in a musical, offer simple but lasting gifts of potential transcendence to their guests. (“You must finish your concerto – you must!” Avrum urges Camal) And the bald erotic challenge that Dina poses to Tewfiq is sweetened by the discovery of their shared love of Egyptian movies. (Lenk’s floating arms in her irresistible song of seduction might be the most poetic expression of passion in the theater since the lovers in “Brief Encounter” swung on a chandelier.) The ensuing closeness between these two strangers becomes meaningful in ways that defy cliché.
The same strengths that director David Cromer brought to his re-imagined off-Broadway production of “Our Town” are deployed with great effect here. Under his superb and sensitive direction, Lenk and Shalhoub lead an immaculate ensemble offering unforced and beautifully detailed performances of humanity writ small. The versatile cast’s proficiency playing musical instruments cover scene transitions with infectious brio, while the cleverly used turntable, (with a set designed by Scott Pask) helps create the appearance of an unreduced world, the verity of which never falters. The heightened theatricality of the lighting by Tyler Micoleau occasionally felt jarring, even in our quasi fairy tale setting, but Bet Hatikva was lit up with color at last.
“The Band’s Visit” is most of all a musical for grown ups. It is perhaps the most wholly adult musical since Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella.” Because the audience is afforded the all-too-rare privilege of subtlety, we are as grateful for what didn’t happen on stage as we are for the myriad virtues of what did.
On the list of welcome omissions is tension arising from the presence of a group of Arabs at large in Israel. That fact is referenced only in passing, as the political and social context is clear without needing to be explicit. We are reminded by inference alone that while people and their respective governments are not synonymous, the characters are bound by larger regional and cultural identities. But by concentrating on the situational intimacy between individuals, “The Band’s Visit” achieves the distinction of becoming a parable about us all.
The musical opens with a projection: “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.” With that, this necessary piece of theater reminds us is that life is not so much about what one experiences, as it is about how one responds to experience, and what we gain as a result. I wager that those who venture a visit to this tuneful band will leave the theater with their soul better for it.
Correction: A previous version of this review misstated the name of the stalled composer. It is Simon played by Alok Tewari.
“The Band’s Visit” opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017.
Creative: Book by Itamar Moses; Music by David Yazbek; Lyrics by David Yazbek; Based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin; Directed by David Cromer; Choreographed by Patrick McCollum.
Producers: Orin Wolf, StylesFour Productions, Evamere Entertainment, Atlantic Theater Company, David F. Schwartz, Barbara Broccoli, Frederick Zollo, Grove • REG, Lassen Blume Baldwin, Thomas Steven Perakos, Marc Platt, The Shubert Organization, The Baruch/Routh/Frankel/Viertel Group, Robert Cole, DeRoy-Carr-Klausner, Federman-Moellenberg, Roy Furman, FVSL Theatricals, Hendel-Karmazin, HoriPro, IPN, Jam Theatricals, The John Gore Organization, Koenigsberg-Krauss, David Mirvish, James L. Nederlander, Al Nocciolino, Once Upon a Time Productions, Susan Rose and Paul Shiverick.
Cast: Katrina Lenk, Tony Shalhoub, George Abud, Etai Benson, John Cariani, Adam Kantor, Andrew Polk, Ari’el Stachel, Bill Army, Rachel Prather, Jonathan Raviv, Sharone Sayegh, Kristen Sieh, Alok Tewari.