To See or Not to See: The Band’s Visit
An Egyptian police band shakes up the dull repetitive lives over the course of one day in a small desert town in Israel in this quietly dazzling musical.
The Band’s Visit begins after the Alexandria Police Band has a mix-up with their bus tickets when they arrive in Israel. They were supposed to go to Petah Tikva where they are scheduled to perform at the Arab Cultural Center, but they arrive in a small desert called Bet Hatikva. There, they discover they are stuck there until the next bus departs…the next day. Bet Hatikva is so small that there is no hotel so the band disperses as house guests amongst a few locals.
The inhabitants of the town we meet all have one thing in common: stasis. The opening number, “Waiting,” explains how nothing ever happens in the town. Everything is boring, and everything is stuck in a monotonous routine. That feeling is evident with the several characters The Band’s Visit highlights. There is the unnamed Telephone Guy (Adam Kantor) who, night after night, waitsin vain by the town’s only payphone for his girlfriend to call. There is Itzik (John Cariani) who does not work. He either sits at the café, or sits at home (much to the dismay of his wife). There is Papi (Etai Benson), a twenty-something has trouble even talking to the opposite gender. Finally, there is the café owner, Dina (Katrina Lenk). She yearns for more than what her life has given her and still nurses emotional scars from a failed marriage and a forgotten dance career.
Slowly, these Bet Hatikvans’s lives are effected by the band members they house for the evening. Young trumpeter Haled (Ari-el Stachel), destined for an inescapable arranged marriage when he returns to Egypt, helps Papi. The lighting design, song, and performances in their scene at a tiny roller rink is absolutely delightful. Clarinetist Simon (Alok Tewari) shares his incomplete concerto with Itzik and his family.
The strongest connection—and one that beats at the heart of The Band’s Visit—is the one between Tewfiq (Tony Shaloub) and Dina. Shaloub excels as Tewfiq. He has a quiet authority that makes it easy for him to hold himself at a distance from others. He is equally matched with Lenk’s strength and restlessness. As they bond over music and Omar Sharif, they both let their vulnerabilities out in the open. Theirs is a wistful almost-romance that tugs at the heart strings.
Overall, The Band’s Visit (an adaptation, by the way, of an Israeli film of the same name) was directed beautifully by David Cromer along with the book by Itamar Moses. The simple connections these Israeli and Egyptian characters make with one another highlights universal human experiences: flirting, having children, being married, joy, and regret. The show captures all of that into a palpable ache you can feel.
One final piece of the production that is extremely important and well-done is the music. Several of the actors on stage as part of the band do play their own instruments (although The Band’s Visit orchestra is, of course, wonderful). David Yazbek’s music is a blend of contemporary musical theater melodies (like the really lovely “Answer Me”) with a blend of gorgeous Middle Eastern instrumentals. And, make sure to stay after the actors’ curtain call for a vigorous, life-infusing instrumental-only performance by the band that is solely Middle Eastern in sound. It was the icing on the cake.
The Band’s Visit debuts on Broadway after a sold-out and award-winning run last year at the Atlantic Theater. It is playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Click here for more information.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy