Last December at the Atlantic Theater in Chelsea, I was mesmerized. The Band’s Visit was nearing the end of its short Off-Broadway run and I was lucky enough to squeak in before closing. The musical, that is now making its Broadway debut is absolutely and quietly devastating in its magnificence. It has a beauty to its sadness, and a sense of goodness and hope in its desire. Not much has changed with this perfectly constructed piece as it sails uptown into the Ethel Barrymore Theater on the sweet ocean air that hints of jasmine. That aroma seems to hang on those lovely blue suits that are worn proudly by the musicians of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. They have come to Israel to play at the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva, but a sweet turn of events sends the Band on a different kind of visit. They bring with them the smell of the ocean in that blue, and that is just what the town folk of Bet Haatikva (and Broadway for that matter) have been waiting for, even if we all didn’t know it when they first walked in.
That town, the one in the middle of the Israeli desert, tells us everything we need to know when they sing that perfectly apt song, “Waiting”, as they circulate in on their way to no-where-in-particular. The residents are itching for something new to blow into town, somewhere between the cafe and the apartment buildings. The song suggests boredom but also a faint aroma of hope. They are all waiting and wanting for anything to shake up their staleness. And than, as if blown in from a far away land, the blue suited musicians walk on, and the brilliant “Welcome to Nowhere” solidifies just how deep the need is for that whiff of some strange kind of spice to penetrate their dusty desert air. It’s drenched in Israeli sarcasm but also survival, frustration, and humor. It’s about as perfect a ‘welcome song’ as one could imagine, but not one we’d like to hear getting off a bus after a long ride.
But the lost musicians are a welcome sight, for myself, for Broadway, and for the residents of Bet Haatikva. The only thing that might have changed with their bus ride transfer uptown to Broadway is that The Band’s Visit has become more solid and in some way, this musical, based on the 2007 film, sits more squarely and securely on stage. The set, designed by Scott Pask (Waitress) feels more sure-footed and rooted onto this bigger stage, more at home than downtown. And the musical, itself, feels more sure of its power, its wit, and its deep strong emotional core. So when that Orchestra arrives in Israel from Egypt for a cultural event, with no delegation to meet them, nor any arrangements to get to their destination, they find their own ride. Lined up on that magnificent set, the misunderstanding that leads them astray, we are sure, is a wonderful gift from some higher power to us all.
Midway through The Band’s Visit, the magnetic Katrina Lenk (Indecent, Once), playing Dina, a bored and frustrated Israeli woman living her days away sings an enchanting song called “Omar Sharif” to a visiting Egyptian man. She wistfully recalls Friday nights at home with her mother, watching Egyptian movies on television and dreaming of another far off world. The memories are infused with the sweet aroma of jasmine, but also the ache of disappointment. Floating across the dry desert land to the remote island of a town, the mystery and hope of this foreign land soaks into her skin through the lens of black and white movies starring the European film stars Anouk Aimée, Simone Signoret, and, of course, the handsome and charming Omar Sharif. They filled her with wonder, and a desire for something very different than her quiet little town. Her song, sung with the beautiful aroma of faraway spices and a hint of sea air freshness perfectly captures the absolute joy of this compelling new musical. It also captures the ache and sense of longing that permeates the air.
The man Dina sings that song to is the strong and ever so polite, Tewfiq, played magnificently by a wonderfully detailed Tony Shalhoub (The Price), the conductor of the lost orchestra. Their chemistry together is subtle and sublime. Through a misunderstanding by the ever-so-handsome trumpeter and confident ladies’ man, Haled, played by a velvety smooth voiced Ari’El Stachel (NYTW’s We Live in Cairo), who could make anyone swoon with a look and a song, this police band finds themselves on the door step of Dina’s cafe, far away from their intended destination. Lost, and in need of help, Dina and her friends; Itzik, portrayed by a tender and endearing John Cariani (Broadway’s Something Rotten!) and the shy Papi, a heart-warming Etai Benson (Broadway’s Wicked) embrace the lost foreigners. Stuck in that town until the next morning’s bus, the band tries its best to settle in with their new and surprised hosts who offer their help and homes for the night. What happens next is a special evening together of intimate confessions and quiet interactions that impact everyone involved. They all decide to breath-in the scent of something new and unexpected, and breath-out a sigh of relief.
The cast is exceptional; each one making their mark with song after song seeped in intimate emotionality of every range and color. David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), who wrote the music and lyrics, and Itamar Moses (The Fortress of Solitude), who is responsible for the book, have created a gloriously story that Dina states, “wasn’t very important”. It envelopes us with a musical sense and style steeped in the two different cultures and somehow blends them in a way that creates something old and new at the same time. On both sides of that culture aisle, we see passion, care, and affection, dipping in longing and painted with personal history, scented with love, longing, and humor.
For a show about Egyptians and Israelis, the show lacks almost any political lectures except for one brief moment of tension and suspicion, which is quickly pushed aside by one labeling his neighbor an ‘asshole’, and moving on to the more important human elements that brings them all together; love and hope. There is an absolutely charming moment between the incredibly handsome Haled (a star making performance by Stachel) singing “Haled’s Song About Love” dripping with honey and velvet. It is a crooner of a song that I still can’t get out of my head, as he tries to help the young and scared Papi step over his fears and embrace an opportunity that is sitting right beside him. It’s a touching and beautiful moment that embraces the whole idea of these two worlds coming together. The Chet Baker-loving Haled is the spiritual center of this soulful story. No politics are needed in this simple tale, just the universal impact of courage, fulfillment, and connection.
Directed with precision and a knack for both beauty and impact, David Cromer (The Treasurer, Tribes) achieves something as wonderful and glorious as the music that swirls out of the band’s instruments (excellent work by music director Andrea Grody, the musicians, sound design by Kai Harada, and orchestrations by Janshied Sharifi). The design work by Pask (sets), Tyler Micoleau (lights), Sarah Laux (costumes) and choreography by Patrick McCollum are seamless and enrich the already beautiful and funny story lines that rotate around that one night when strangers are forced by fate to entangle themselves in another world. Simon, played by Alok Tewari (Public’s Awake and Sing!), the tender clarinetist and composer of an unfinished concerto and the sweet nervous Camal, the violinist, portrayed by a sweet George Abud, find themselves at the dinner table with a troubled couple, Itzik (Cariani), his wife, Iris, a deep and wonderfully sullen Kristen Sieh (CSC’s Iphigenia in Aulis), her father, Avrum, a kind and emotionally voiced Andrew Polk (The Accomplices), and their temperamental baby. The beauty lies in the depth of the trapped and confused, where a sense of disengagement and longing floats side by side through the air.
What stood out for me on this visit to Bet Haatikva is the slow build of sadness and longing that settles on every surface in town as this musical rotates and roller-skates forward. From that first song in the cafe, through Dina and Tewfig’s achingly sweet “Something Different“, the sea of sadness and discontent keeps rising and rising, until finally, the most simple story told by the marvelous Shalhoub’s Tewfiq, pushes the emotional waters over the crest with his painful revelation. It’s not huge in scope, but it is quietly devastating and all that is required to bring tears to my eyes. The final song, “Answer Me” starts off so simply and casually that we almost don’t recognize that this song is THE song that builds into something bigger and more powerful than expected. As everyone begins to join in, we realize that this song is really what this wonderful tale is all about.
For a town smack dead in the middle of the desert, there is so much talk of the sea and the silent longing for that breeze. With this finale, we see the sea-wall surge up and engulf us. This sublime musical with an excitingly fresh score floats through the air filling our hearts and our minds with romance, humor, love, and longing of a different people and a different world. A dream and a hope that we can all relate to and understand. These people are lost in a way, all of them, wanting and hoping for something to happen. And when it final does, they try to grab hold, but much like the beach air and the feeling it brings, there isn’t a way to capture it for later, except to breath it in and try to remember. For that moment of inhaling, they can see past their entrenchment, and imagine something else. Some other place, maybe, that will fill them with wonder. Much like The Band’s Visit is for me, drenched in the smell of the crisp exotic sea air, laced with the light hint of jasmine.
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