Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

0417 Katrina Lenk Tony Shalhoub THE BANDS VISIT 900x600 webKatrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in 'The Band's Visit' at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York.NEW YORK — The best musical to arrive on Broadway this season is “The Band’s Visit,” a superb theatrical adaptation of a 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian band that finds itself accidentally stranded in a remote Israeli town. This insightful story has been turned into a rapturous, intimate musical with a melodious score by the inventive composer David Yazbek with a moving book by Itmar Moses.

The production has been staged with feeling and nuance by David Cromer. It it is performed by an impeccable ensemble cast of admirable actors who turn a good show into a memorable experience. It is playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on West 47th Street.

“The Band’s Visit” revolves around the eight-member ceremonial Egyptian police orchestra, which goes to Israel to perform a goodwill concert at an Arab Cultural Center. Because of a language error — Arabic has no “p” sound and it is often replaced with a “b”— there is a bus miscue and the band lands in the small and insignificant town of Bet Hativka in the middle of the arid Neger Desert.

The band arrives in powder blue uniforms (the atmospheric costumes are by Sarah Laux), carrying their instruments and looking like creatures from another planet. The people of bleak Bet Hativka look at them warily, yet the band is stuck there — no buses until morning and no lodgings or hotels in this forgotten, out-of-bounds place.

Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub of TV’s “Monk,” giving a fine, reserved, elegant performance), the band’s leader, meets local café owner Dina (the luminous Katrina Lenk), who at first seems cool to him and his band’s plight. There is an awkwardness in her conversation, full of silences and Pinter-like pauses. If there is hope for romance here, it is an uncertain hope.

The audience and actors are mindful of the underpinning echoes of the Egyptian and Israeli conflicts. Yet political differences are set aside on this night in this uneventful town. Both the Egyptians and the Bet Hativka citizens spend the evening in shared wistfulness, waiting for something to happen, as Mr. Yazbek’s first song, “Waiting,” indicates.

Dina did not expect an Egyptian band to be her town’s savior, but in a kind of sympathetic way, she and her cohorts decide to welcome the dejected musicians to downtrodden Bet Hativka with the appropriately titled song. “Welcome to Nowhere.” 

Since “The Band's Visit” is a musical, the possibility of romance pervades this snapshot of one night in an Israeli town. Though the show has no weddings, love is lurking around every corner of Scott Pask’s revolving Bet Hativka's set, lit with atmospheric lighting by Tyler Micoleau. Dina even sings a wonderful, soaring ballad to Tewfiq about her favorite Egyptian movie star “Omar Sharif,” an icon from her youth in “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago” and “Funny Girl.” 

A funny encounter in “The Band’s Visit” involves the band’s handsome ladies’ man and trumpet player, Haled (Ari’el Stachel), whose hero is the American jazz trumpet player Chet Baker. This Lothario takes shy local bachelor Papi (Etai Benson) under his wing, and accompanies him on a blind date to a roller skating rink while explaining his many theories of romance in “Haled’s Song about Love.”

What is so special about “The Band’s Visit” is that in this show, which is only 100 minutes long without intermission, slowly builds into a perfect piece of stirring musical theater. “The Band’s Visit” never utters a political message; it only cares about the day-to-day lives and hopes of these very different people.

As with two shows from last season, the play “Oslo” and the musical “Come from Away,” “The Band’s Visit” has a theme of the accidental meeting of strangers who learn to care for one another. That wonderful word “serendipity” rules all three exciting ventures.