THE BAND'S VISIT
Often the loveliest gifts come in small packages. Such is the case THE BAND’S VISIT, one of the first musicals of the 2017-2018 Broadway season. From its premiere at The Atlantic Theatre off-Broadway last year, THE BAND’S VISIT transfers to the Great White Way perfectly intact - a tender, intimate gem of musical theatre. Based on the 2007 Israeli film, now adapted for the stage by Itamar Moses, THE BAND’S VISIT is defined by a delicately calibrated score (lyrics, too) by David Yazbek (his best yet, even after such big productions like THE FULL MONTY, DIRTY ROTTEN SCANDALS and WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN) and the sensitive, relaxed direction of David Cromer, a Macarthur Foundation Fellow who took New York theatre by storm years back by re-staging the American classic OUR TOWN, with not much more than metal folding chairs.
Opposite cultures mix in 1996 when the all-male, eight-member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, arrives in Israel from Egypt, but, by fluke of misunderstood Hebrew pronunciation, ends up in a small town in the Negev Desert. As there are neither busses out that evening nor hotels, the band members are housed by the locals. In the overnight stay, what Israelis and Egyptians share in common becomes clear in the most ordinary but most revelatory ways.
The central story pivots around Tewfiq, the orchestra conductor, and Dina, owner of the local restaurant and the unofficial “mayor” of the town. Locals don’t have much to do but hang out in Dina’s meager café. One lonely soul, known as the Telephone Guy, spends all his time waiting constantly for a call from a lost girlfriend at the pubic phone in the center of town. In the evening, locals meander to the local bar, the younger to a roller-skating rink.
Passing time dominates these Israeli lives, which the ensemble laments in the opening number “Waiting”, a nervous, wistful melody that sets the tone for the dozen songs that follow. The locals declare plainly their ennui with their town in the follow-up number “Welcome to Nowhere” in which they somewhat suspiciously (but underneath enthusiastically) greet the lost Egyptians as curious, exotic diversion.
The sexually vibrant and street-smart Dina (alluringly played by the versatile Katrina Lank), a Sabra beauty fast approaching middle-age, oddly but immediately takes to the meek, formally-mannered, almost brooding, Tewfiq (perfectly played by the wonderful Tony Shalhoub). Dina reveals her romantic needs and fascination with the foreign to Tewfiq in “Omar Sharif”, a charming recollection of her pubescent infatuation with the Egyptian movie-idol. Over the course of the evening, more of Dina’s past, which explains her tough, hardened view of the world, becomes evident, as do the reasons for Tewfiq’s contained, stoic demeanor.
In little ways, the other locals and stranded visitors find common ground. Counterpoint to Tewfiq, is the youngest member of the Egyptian band, Haled (charmingly played by newcomer Ari’el Stachel), a vital, handsome Romeo, who comically tries to woo every women he meets with a few sung bars of “My Funny Valentine”. Haled accompanies Papi, a local nebbish who’s too awkward to make any advances to his girlfriend, to the roller skating rink where Papi laments his romantic fecklessness in the amusing “I Hear in the Ocean” In reply, the aspiring man-of-the world Haled instructs Papi in the beautifully melodic (and best song in the show) “Halad’s Love Song About Love”
Across the village, Simon, the orchestra’s clarinetist, happily married for twenty years with family back home, has dinner with an immature father Itzik (John Cariani) and his unhappy wife, both uncomfortable with new parenthood. Avrum, a middle aged, recent widow joins them. With his music, Simon conveys to all that things do get better.
And so life’s little exchanges proceed in THE BAND”S VIST, creeping-in quietly, yet steadily. When Tewfiq observes Dina’s frustrations with her futile life, he challenges positively “Who can’t live without hope?” But when Dina’s chip-on-her-shoulder becomes fatalistic his placid demeanor cracks: “You CAN forgive” he explodes. Something changes a little, and Tewfiq and Dina commemorate that in a lovely duet of mutual reconciliation “Something Different”
Director Cramer lets the individual stories enfold, like relaxed, conversations between strangers getting to know each other. Yazbek’s songs emerge naturalistically from Moses’ book. Cromer inserts a couple of Yazbek’s Arab-style musical compositions by members of the band (supplemented with some musicians off-stage) in-between scenes. The set by Scott Pask is a background of bland, concrete housing commonly seen in Israeli settlements. The action occurs on a rotating stage that not only shifts scenes but also moves characters between apartments and public spots.
The ensemble finale, aptly called “Answer Me”, an allusion to the Telephone Guy’s waiting for his lover’s call, is a rousing yet bittersweet anthem. Life’s problems - and its little (and not so little) ups and downs – get answered in small, unsuspecting ways. In coda, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra celebrates with a little concert. The audience cheers.