The Band’s Visit. Music & lyrics by David Yazbeck, book by Itamar Moses. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York
The Band’s Visit feels more like an immersive experience than your typical musical. For 95 uninterrupted minutes, you forget you’re on Broadway as you are engrossed in one of the most authentic pieces of theater now playing.
This new musical, based on a 2007 Israeli film of the same name, tells the story of an Egyptian ceremonial police band that gets stranded for a night in a remote village in Israel’s Negev Desert. The first scene shows the miscommunication in which the Egyptians, scheduled to perform at an Arab cultural center in Petah Tikvah, wind up in the tiny town of Bet Hatikvah. (The Arabic alphabet doesn’t have a “p”).
After the first few minutes, the plot points are minimal but we witness a fascinating collection of human connections. Doesn’t sound like your average Broadway musical, does it? It’s a marvelous feat by the cast and creative team to make this enchanting and compelling.
The Band’s Visit has similarities to the recent Broadway hits Come From Away and Oslo, but if you’re looking for heated conflict, regional politics, or heartwarming unity, you’ll go without. This show simply shows reality for all that it is — the slow, the uncomfortable, the charming, the joyous. Because of how authentic the story seems (as well as the spot-on Israeli and Egyptian accents), you feel immersed in this Middle Eastern environment. Itamar Moses’s book, however, has some draggy moments and I take issue with character Dina’s choice towards the end of the show.
The enchanting score is composed by David Yazbek who is uniquely suited (he’s part-Lebanese/part-Jewish) to put music to this story. The tune “Welcome to Nowhere” is particularly brilliant in how it introduces the Egyptians (and the audience) to the desolate town of Bet Hatikvah. There are also brief musical interludes between scenes and after the curtain call, where the musicians play Middle Eastern music onstage. This puts a spotlight on the brilliant instrumentalists, including Philip Mayer on Arabic percussion, Harvey Valdes on oud/guitar, and George Abud (who acts as well) on violin.
Standout performances from the cast are plentiful, led by Katrina Lenk (the recent co-star of Indecent), who plays an Israeli restaurant owner and lonely soul. There’s no better word to describe her performance other than real. Emmy winner Tony Shaloub plays Colonel Tewfiq with heartbreaking restraint, as a man who has nothing left in life besides music. John Cariani plays the lovable Itzik and always brings a smile to your face, while Etai Benson stands out in his hilarious musical number “Papi Hears the Ocean.” It’s a true ensemble piece with the actors who feature multiple religions and backgrounds transporting you to Bet Hatikvah.
If you’re looking for an easier option to be transported to the Middle East than booking a ticket to Ben Gurion Airport, allow yourself to be entranced by The Band’s Visit.