Let go of your big city angst and open yourself to the quiet, but eventful, world of The Band’s Visit at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. A modest show—based on an equally low-keyed film written by Eran Kolirin—The Band’s Visit explores, in a very personal way, the inner lives of members of two cultures—Egyptian and Israeli—who would normally be at each others’ throats. In the tiny Israeli desert town of Bet Hatikva, the two very different ways of looking at life interact in surprising ways.
Written by Itamar Moses, with songs by David Yazbek, The Band’s Visit is a fish-out-of-water tale. It’s 1996 and the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, led by Tewfiq (a low-keyed, soulful Tony Shalhoub), is en route to play a concert at the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva, a city, but wind up in the tiny town of Bet Hatikva where they are forced to stay overnight.
They connect with its very bored denizens, including café owner Dina (a lusciously brooding Katrina Lenk, fresh from Indecent) and reluctantly accept the Israelis’ hospitality which includes endless curious questioning and kibitzing.
As the band members get to know their hosts, their memories, losses, pains and loves become the backbone of the show.
Dina takes to diffident Tewfiq. During a walk about the tiny town she reveals a colorful Peyton Place existence while he, after being worn down by her energetic prodding and flirting, makes a touching confession.
Zelger, the local lothario (played with cartoonish exaggeration by Bill Army) takes Papi (Etai Benson, playing sexual frustration with humor) skating with two local girls. Haled, the band member who regards himself as a chick magnet (played by Ari’el Stachel, skillfully avoiding caricature) accompanies Papi to instruct him on the art of seducing women, getting both of them into an emotional tangle which makes it unclear who’s seducing whom. Haled’s approach to the ladies includes the question: “You know Chet Baker?” That he mispronounces “Chet” makes it funnier.
Simon, a clarinetist with the band, cannot finish his concerto. Alok Tewari plays him as a man carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Taken in by the unemployed Itzik (a likeable, nebbishy John Cariani) and his wife Iris (Kristen Sieh, seething quietly), Simon finds himself in a web of discord.
Each character, even the Telephone Guy (Adam Kantor, playing anxiety with humor as he awaits, night after night, a call from his distant girlfriend) come across as real people.
The subtle revelations brought on by forced intimacy make The Band’s Visit a joy. There is as much emotion in this musical as in a Eugene O’Neill play but served with wit, a wonderful sense of human frailties and, of course, music.
Yazbek’s songs—ranging from the darkly comic “Welcome to Nowhere” (sung by the town folk) to Dina’s romantically tinged “Omar Sharif” and ending with the upbeat, danceable “Concert” played as a finale by the Band—rise magically from the dialogue, just as Patrick McCollum’s choreography emerges naturally from walking, singing and thinking.
The band members play their own instruments, abetted by an unseen orchestra, with great skill.
Scott Pask’s sun-bleached set pieces move about easily to keep the show moving from scene to scene. Sarah Laux’s costumes, from the cartoonish sky blue uniforms of the band to the informal duds of the Israelis are perfectly observed.
Tyler Micoleau’s lighting brilliantly portrays the bright daylight and the deep darkness of night.
David Cromer, the director, is at the top of his game, allowing the show to unfold naturally, with breathless pauses punctuating the action.
The Broadway version of The Band’s Visit includes all of the cast members who appeared in the earlier Atlantic Theater Company production with the exception of Etail Benson who now plays Papi and Adam Kantor as Telephone Guy.
The Band’s Visit (open run)
Atlantic Theater Company
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission