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New York City Theater

"The Band’s Visit"
Ethel Barrymore Theater

“Nothing is as beautiful as something you don’t expect,” sings a character in “The Band’s Visit,” the lovely, touching, life-affirming musical that’s moved from a sold-out engagement off-Broadway to the Main Stem with its impact even stronger than originally. The work about wishing and waiting starts with a projection: “Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” Perhaps not. Yet the show displays such humanity that it turns minimalism into something greater and, yes, important.

Based on the eponymous 2007 film by Eran Kolirin, “A Band’s Visit” tells of an Egyptian police band that, invited to play at an Arab cultural center in an Israeli town, finds itself in a Jewish backwater village instead. A mix-up of place names is the culprit. Forced to spend the night – no more buses, no hotels -- band members interact with inhabitants, exchanging memories, sharing regrets, dealing with romance. They find ways of discovering themselves and the common ground, the one-on-one relationships that tolerate community friendship not xenophobic separation.

If that sounds preachy and solemn, rest assured. The show’s “message” seeps out slowly and unobtrusively, with the emphasis on lively characters and a heartfelt story. Directed with his usual sensitivity by David Cromer, the musical is a gift of tranquility, modesty and harmony in an increasingly shrill, divided and one-note society. Even characters’ gestures move “like they are swimming through the music,” taking on a surreal beauty.

Always the music, a mash-up of Israeli and Egyptian, the Near East filtered through Broadway. An Egyptian clarinetist lulls an Israeli baby to sleep, a trumpeter has a penchant for Chet Baker, an Israeli woman sings of her crush on Omar Sharif; interwoven are “Summertime” and “My Funny Valentine.”

Even fishing is musical, as Tewfiq, the bandleader describes it: “It’s not boring at all. It’s the sound of water, and waves, distant children playing on the beach and the sound of the bait falling in the water. In the early hours, on the sea, you can hear the whole world like…like symphony.”

Composer/lyricist David Yazbek’s evocative score is the glue that binds, giving Itamar Moses’ ingenuous, plotless libretto its cornerstone. Not much “happens,” as such. Yes, a married couple has disagreements, a shy young couple needs prodding. regrets are revealed (a child dead of suicide, a love cooled, a would-be affair thwarted). But the evening is more mournful than lugubrious, more truthful than pat.

This is a formidable cast of 18 actors and musicians. Tony Shalhoub is Tewfiq, the bandleader. His tone a millimeter away from tragic, he carries his baton under his arm as a barrier to intimacy. Sadness and conflicting emotions sweep over him: his solace is the music. As Dina, Katrina Lenk is sensational: subtly seductive (watch how she sits), sensuous and sly. An earth goddess who’s been thwarted and rejected yet not destroyed, she is the show’s heart.

As Haled, the randiest band member, Ari’el Stachel is both funny and yearning, while John Cariani is warm as the hangdog, loving Itzik and Adam Kantor is also sad/funny as a young man waiting for a telephone call that may never come. Andrew Polk delivers a poignant “The Beat of Your Heart” (“Love starts when the music starts”).

On Scott Pask’s atmospheric set, turntables move characters in never-ending circles, mirroring their lives. Sarah Laux’s costumes, Tyler Micoleau’s lighting and Kai Harada’ sound design envelop the audience in a time and place that become more familiar and less exotic as ordinary day turns to tender night, to now-transformed day.

“The Band’s Visit” is a modest musical with big ideas. Sometimes the simplest things are the more complex. Its characters are “just waiting for something to change,” hoping for answers. As are we all.

--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 20, 2017

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