The Band’s Visit
Nancy Salz, November 2017
It doesn’t reach across the proscenium and wallop us with its score – like Hamilton. Nor does it lavish us with its production numbers like Hello Dolly! The Band’s Visit is a gentler kind of brilliance – quietly, charmingly seducing us until we are completely in its thrall. Even more than the wonderful score, it is the characters who touch us deeply and remain in our hearts.
In The Band’s Visit, first presented by the Atlantic Theatre Company last year off-Broadway, we become friends with sixteen endearing people. They are the residents of a sleepy Israeli desert town and the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra who turn up there by mistake.
At the center of the story is Dina, a sexy Israeli woman resigned to her boring life yet still filled with humanity, humor and hope. We also meet the young Telephone Guy waiting patiently by a public phone for his girlfriend’s call that might never come. Papi is a naïve young man who gets lessons in how to behave with women from the band’s playboy, Haled. Itzik has a new baby and a marriage that is falling apart. And there’s quiet, solemn, dignified Twefiq, taking his responsibilities as the band’s leader seriously yet exuding a sadness we only learn the reasons for toward the end of the show. One wanted to be with these people far longer than the show’s ninety minute length.
Also endearing is the characters’ manner of speech. Neither the Egyptians nor the Israelis speak each other’s languages, so they decide to speak English, which they both understand – more or less. They speak slowly, haltingly, creating a calm, peaceful pace rarely felt in a Broadway musical. The Band’s Visit helps us believe that perhaps real-life Arab and Israeli people could get along if the rest of the world would only get out of the way.
The Band’s Visit is based on a 2007 movie of the same name which is in turn based on a true story, unimportant they tell us, of an Egyptian band that turned up in the wrong town and were taken into the Israelis’ home for one night to await a bus to the correct town where they have a concert the next day. (They went to Bet Hatikva instead of Petah Tikva by mistake. Say the names out loud and you’ll understand the confusion.) Yes, the plot is similar to Come From Away, but the shows are nothing alike. The Band’s Visit takes place in 1996.
The slinky, sexy, warm Katrina Lenk sings and acts Dina radiantly. One understands Dina and wants to befriend her. Tony Shalhoub is perfect as the reticent Tewfiq – intensely guarding his personal life. Ari’el Satchel brings humor and kindness to Haled, the playboy. John Cariani as the new father Itzik pulls on your heart strings, especially when he sings a lullaby to his baby with Camal, a band member staying at his house, played by George Abud,. In fact, the entire cast is exceptional – even the non-speaking Egyptian band members who play their instruments on stage and just loll around in place when they aren’t playing.
David Yazbeck wrote both the music and lyrics. His score is floating, sarcastic, sometimes spiritual. Consider the lyrics in a song about how to love someone: “You don’t break the ice you melt the ice.” Yazbeck’s songs perfectly evoke the drama of each scene and each character. (Can’t you just hear the song “Welcome to Nowhere?”) Most have an Arabic feel to them, but they are distinctly American as well. They go down easily. I can’t wait for the cast album. David Cromer sensitively directed the production and evoked deep feeling in us all. Itamar Moses wrote the powerful book filled with subtle humor. Andrea Grody and Dean Sharenow were the music supervisors. Grody conducted the seven person orchestra, some of whom appear on the stage.
My only wish is that I had seen The Band’s Visit off Broadway in its 199 seat Atlantic Theatre Company’s theatre. This is a very intimate show, and while it still felt intimate and drew me in playing in a 1,058 seat theatre, I wondered if the audience in the balcony and the back of the orchestra felt the show’s intimacy. But the theatre was packed at the preview I attended. I predict a big hit, but sit are far forward as you can afford.
Music and lyrics by David Yazbek; Book by Itamar Moses; Directed by David Cromer; Choreography by Patrick McCollum; Music Direction and Additional Arrangements by Andrea Grody Scenic Design by Scott Pask; Costume Design by Sara Laux; Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau; Sound Design by Kai Harada