“Shalom Aleichem. Alaikim salaam.”
It’s very rare that a New York Times critic rates a show 100% on the review aggregator Show-Score.com but Ben Brantley did so for The Band’s Visit. That, of course, is the affectingly lovely musical that recently opened at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre after premiering Off-Broadway last season at the Atlantic. My own rating won’t be quite so high but that’s not to deny I was thoroughly touched, amused, and impressed by this warm-hearted adaptation of Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film.
The Band’s Visit is about an Egyptian band, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, scheduled to perform at the opening of an Arab cultural center in the bustling, thriving city of Petah Tikvah. Because of its name’s similarity to Bet Hatikvah, the men take the wrong bus and end up in the latter place, a lifeless, Tombstone-like outpost in the Negev Desert. Its residents sing to the stranded musicians about how the pronunciations of the cities’ names differ by one beginning with P and the other with B:
LIKE IN BORING.
LIKE IN BARREN.
LIKE IN BULLSHIT.
LIKE IN BLAND.
LIKE IN BLEAK AND BEIGE AND BLAH BLAH BLAH.
The magnificently magnetic Katrina Lenk (Indecent), she of the cheekbones that would challenge Sir Edmund Hillary to climb them, is Dina, the wryly cynical but goodhearted proprietor of this dead-end town’s café. Despite some initial reluctance, she suggests that she and several other townspeople allow the band, outfitted in powder-blue uniforms (costumes by Sarah Laux), and led by the imperious conductor Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub, Act One, TV’s “Monk”), to board at their homes until their itinerary can be ironed out.
Itamar Moses’s book then closely follows the film script as it shows the benign intermingling of the two cultures, Arab and Israeli, largely through the universal medium of music. The narrative arc highlights a variety of events precipitated during a single night by the band’s presence in this wasteland. A message of sorts is implied in the mutual respect shown by the Arabs and Israelis but the show doesn’t insist on any larger political point. Yet you can’t help but feel the human warmth beneath it all and think to yourself, “If only.”
The casualness of the event and an ironic comment on its significance is embedded in two sentences projected on a scrim before the show starts and repeated at the end by Dina: “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.”
The main story lines include the strained marital relationship between the unemployed Itzik (John Cariani) and Iris (Kristen Sieh), daughter of the amateur musician Avrum (Andrew Polk); the difficulty of the band’s clarinetist, Simon (Alok Tewari), in finishing his concerto; the obsessive patience of the lovelorn Telephone Guy (Adam Kantor), eternally waiting at the payphone for his girlfriend to call him back, and trying to prevent the Egyptian violinist, Camal (George Abud), from using the phone to reach his embassy; the roving eye of the band’s Don Juanish trumpet player, Haled (Ari’el Stachel), whose come-on is “Do you like Chet Baker?”; and, of course, the incipient but unfulfilled romance between the gentle, gentlemanly widower Tewfiq and the earthy, sensual Dina, beleaguered by her angry ex, Sammy (Jonathan Raviv).
Musical theatre fans shouldn’t expect a show with all the familiar Broadway ingredients; there are no huge, lung-busting power songs, not even a so-called eleven o’clock number; choreography is so minimal I was surprised to see a choreographer, Patrick McCollum, credited for it; and so many passages of quiet, low-keyed dialogue go by it’s easy to forget that the show has over a dozen numbers. Moreover, the leading man sings only one song, “Something Different,” and it’s a duet with the leading lady. Even the show’s brief running time, 90 intermissionless minutes, is a Broadway musical departure.
Much credit must go to the increasingly noteworthy director David Cromer (The Treasurer) and composer/lyricist David Yazbek (The Full Monty) for the songs being so well-integrated with the book that they arise organically from the dialogue and situations. Most of the music (which also includes a few moments from American standards) is infused with Middle-Eastern motifs, Arab as well as Jewish; sung numbers are supplemented by instrumental ones displaying the virtuosic techniques of the actor-musicians.
Although the Arab and Israeli accents occasionally slip, the company is consistently convincing at portraying the lassitude, loneliness, and melancholy of life in Bet Hatikvah. Standouts in the excellent 14-member cast include Andrew Polk’s Avrum, particularly memorable in “The Beat of Your Heart,” shared by Itzik, Camal, and Simon; and Ari’el Stachel’s Haled, a handsome charmer who sings “Haled’s Song of Love” like a combination of Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, while also offering a mean trumpet solo of “My Funny Valentine” à la Chet Baker.
As Tewfiq, Shalhoub continues to add laurels to his stage achievements, using his mellifluous voice and delicate gestures to create a man of assured integrity and grace who could very well be the proud, sensitive conductor of an orchestra. While not a true singer, he carries off his duet with Dina with controlled dignity.
Lenk’s Dina is enthralling, her sinewy slenderness and feline features combining with a sensual voice and lived-in sensibility to create a vibrantly compelling persona, reminiscent in a way of the bigger-boned power of the late Colleen Dewhurst. Herself a talented musician, Lenk gets to play only her own voice and body, the latter a showcase of gestural elegance, especially when her serpentine dancer’s arms insinuate themselves into her lyrics. Even when she merely sits, slouching with legs spread wide under her ankle-length dress, she displays an artist’s full consciousness of her body as a well-tuned theatrical tool. And with so many of today’s musical stars noted for their soprano high notes, it’s a relief to hear a leading lady with a creamily rich tone that sounds more like a human being than a human bird. Her song, “Omar Sharif,” to Tewfiq, about her love for the eponymous Egyptian actor and the Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum, is enough of a reason to visit The Band’s Visit.
Scott Pask’s setting, moodily lit by Tyler Micoleau, captures the dull, concrete and sandstone facades and interiors of a desert city’s buildings; a revolving stage moves not only the scenic units but brings actors on and off in smoothly staged transitions.
The Band’s Visit is a welcome addition to the Broadway musical scene. I loved every sweet minute of it. Here’s hoping its visit lasts a long time. Shalom Aleichem. Alaikum salaam.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th St., NYC