I knew I had to attend the show. The American Theatre Critics Association’s mini-conference had splendid panels with this gorgeous musical’s creators and performers.
In my 4th row seat I saw the sold-out matinee and tried not to disturb with my fast-growing lung infection. Then I left Manhattan and flew home. The Broadway opening didn’t occur until five days later. My angry doctor didn’t let me get out of bed, but by then my writing about this haunting, heart-lifting artwork was important only to me.
Did you see Ben Brantley’s exquisite love letter to The Band’s Visit in the Nov. 9th New York Times? I wish I could write that persuasively.
Eran Kolirin didn’t want his Israeli movie to be a musical, at first. It took some years to get his permission. The adapted stage musical version, still titled ”The Band’s Visit, opened November 2016 Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Cross Theater, and won the leading 2017 Off-Broadway Awards for new musical.
The plot is both whimsical and touching, though the details could be satirical. An eight-man uniformed Egyptian police band mistakenly books a bus to a run-down, half-deserted Israel town, Beit Hatikvah [= House of Hope] though they’re actually invited to play a concert at an Arab cultural center, Petah Tikva [Promise of Hope] far away. Their iconic, low-key encounters and activities among the unhappy but ironically amusing inhabitants are surprising and unexpected but somehow touching and even inspiring. The remaining Israelis are unhappy to stay but lack enough purpose to leave. Their stories seem to be emotionally deeply unsatisfying yet bizarrely often happy. I guess it’s an exercise in learning how to feel good while we cry. Expanded from the beloved movie, this new musical has the same human beauty.
The star couple, Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub, are well known in New York. An exquisitely trained and beautiful actress and singer, Lenk here adopts a variety of styles in show-stopping numbers, sexy and passionate scenes, and cold control when her character Dina needs it. Shalhoub’s Tewfiq is restrained and disciplined in his pale blue uniform, and a sexual passion seems to develop between them., But it is painfully denied as Tewfiq relives the horrifying deaths of his wife and son.
The townspeople have to aid their visitors because there is no working hotel or complete food store, phone, or transportation. The variety of resulting vignettes is rich, surprising and appealing. Even a gay tease gets flirted with but is resolved, like all else here, surprisingly and with great charm.
After the Band’s happy/sad exits to their correct destination, the audience didn’t want the show to depart either. And then just the musicians in uniform lined up to perform a short instrumental Egyptian piece, part stirring anthem-like march, part chamber music with a showy little solo riff-like jazz for each of them. And I suddenly became overwhelmingly aware that these were every one of them true artists, stunningly ending their concert. A young man from Toronto standing next to me and applauding wildly, gasped, said “I’m a wreck!”, and started to cry. He said he was leaving shortly to Canada and was “really happy” that he’d decided to come to New York for this performance.
If you have trouble getting to see this astonishing musical soon, don’t worry. It will be around for a while.
By Herbert M. Simpson, Contributing Writer
Ethel Barrymore Theater
243 West 47 Street
Book: Itamar Moses. Score: David Yazbek
Director: David Cromer
Choreographer: Patrick McCullum
Cast:Katrina Lenk, Tony Shalhoub, John Cariani, Ari’el Stachel, George Abud, Etai Benson, Adam Kantor, Andrew Polk, Bill Army, Rachel Prather, Jonathan Raviv, Sharone Sayegh, Kristen Sieh, Alok Tewari, Pomme Koch, Ahmad Maksoud, Madison Micucci, James Rana
Technical: Music Dir: Andrea Grody. Set: Scott Pask. Costumes: Sarah Laux. Lighting: Tyler Micoleau. Sound: Kai Harada. Projections: Maya Chiarrocchi. Hair/Wigs: Charles G. LaPointe
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy.