The Band’s Visit – Not To Be Missed

I reviewed The Band’s Visit when it debuted at The Atlantic Theater last year. Much of the cast remains the same. Parts of this piece come from that review, parts allude to changes and fresh observations evoked by the new presentation.

“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.”

What appears at first glance to be a slight ripple in history sometimes affects those present in profoundly unexpected ways. This gem of a musical, whose fine book buoys grounded lyrics, embraces what we have in common rather than becoming yet another platform for political social/division. That it does so with limpid delicacy eschewing Hollywood outcomes makes the piece as refreshing as it is sympathetic.

John Cariani, Etai Benson, Katrina Lenk, Tony Shaloub and band members

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has been invited to open an Arab Cultural Center in Pet Hatikva, Israel. Overseen with utmost decorum “We are here to represent our country!” by their conductor, Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria (Tony Shalhoub), the small troop appear somewhat dazed. Crisp, powder blue military uniforms stand out against sand and cracked cement as if landed from another planet. In fact, they are strangers in a strange land.

When trumpet player/ladies man Haled (Ari’el Stachel) mistakenly arranges passage to neighboring Bat Hatikva (B not P), the men find themselves in a one horse, Israeli, Negev Desert town without the horse. Locals pass by means of a stage floor turntable. They’re all “Waiting,” but is it for something special or just “Looking off out into the distance/even though you know the view is never gonna change…”

Kristen Sieh, John Cariani, Alok Tewari, Andrew Polk, George Abud

Café owner Dina (Katrina Lenk), affable Itzik (a sympathetic John Cariani), and hapless young Papi (Etai Benson- self conscious acting), sing “Welcome to Nowhere.” As the next bus doesn’t come through till tomorrow and the settlement has no hotel, Dina agrees to put up Tewfiq and Haled. Itzik takes home clarinetist Simon (Alok Tewari, whose quiet gentility warms the role) and violinist Camal (George Abud) – the former unwittingly affecting family dynamics. Others bunk in the café.

The play evolves over a single afternoon and evening with four integrated chapters. At Itzak’s we meet his wife Iris (new to the company Kristen Sieh, who makes her character’s frustration palpable) and father-in-law Avram (Andrew Polk – very fine, but the actor should remove his diamond ear stud).  Note to prop master: the baby doll looks pointedly fake. Avram’s irresistible “Beat of Your Heart” brightens proceedings. At a roller rink, Papi panics around girls. Description of his state “Papi Hears the Ocean” is priceless.

Rachel Prather, Etai Benson, Ari’el Stachel

Curious about and drawn to her guest, the attractive Dina literally lets her hair down with Tewfiq and gets the guarded conductor to open up. He sings in a capella Arabic (with immense feeling), but is it about love, she wonders, or fishing? This man is compelling.

The fourth chapter, an embodiment of hopeful perseverance, is played out with the Telephone Guy (Adam Kantor – good, low key turn) who has stood outside a phone booth every night for a month waiting for a promised call from his girl. Then it’s time for the orchestra to move on. We last see them – performing – in Pet Hatikva. It’s extremely difficult not to get up and dance.

A wonderful experience.

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shaloub

David Yazbeck’s infectious music embraces Middle Eastern influences with estimable skill, maintaining an atmosphere of “other” one rarely finds in Broadway theater. Listen for the sole number with real jazz influence. Stachel actually plays trumpet, Tewari, clarinet, Abud, violin. Other on stage musicians include: Ossama Farouk, Sam Sadigursky, Harvey Valdes, Garo Yellin.

Several cast members speak fluent Arabic while others deliver dialogue in Hebrew. There isn’t a single weak link in acting or vocals. Casting (Tara Rubin) must’ve been like scaling a glass mountain.

Ari’el Stachel imbues Haled with sincere sweetness that would appeal to the girls with whom his character continually flirts, yet masculinity is ever present. His paternal attitude toward Papi is lovely. And he sings well.

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub are a match made in heaven. Lenk’s earthy, sensual, smart portrayal make Dina a real and formidable woman. She emanates earthiness and manifests animal grace. Rarely have the practical and passionate been so believable in tandem. The actress also has a superb voice.

Shalhoub’s performance is nuanced and poignant. Fastidiousness is as unmistakable as emotional armor. Revealing a painful past, Tewfiq maintains perspective, yet at one point, we hear his breath catch. A pivotal song communicates lost illusions. Though we don’t understand a word of the foreign language, one knows. The couple’s parting couldn’t be more moving or convincingly manifest.

Director David Cromer has both a soulful character touch and the kind of comprehensive vision that never makes a false move. A turntable is wonderfully employed. The exception, of which first time attendees may be less aware, concerns live musicians. Perhaps in an effort to fully utilize the possibilities of a multilevel set, integration of performing band members is more stagey/obvious than previously impeding on authenticity. “Musical breaks” unrelated to narrative – excepting a joyous encore, feel somewhat uncomfortable. Most importantly, in the play’s first incarnation, every note emerged from visible actor/musicians. On Broadway, additional band members play from elsewhere giving accompaniment a full, rather false sound which includes piano. This takes away from both intimacy and bona fides. More in this case does not enhance, it detracts.

As realized by Scott Pask, Set Design has naturally expanded into the space. The turntable continues inspired. Most of the new design is not overdone due to increased budget. The roller rink is possibly too decked out to be credible in the tiny, backward location, however.

Sarah Laux’s Costumes are just right down to Dina’s second rate jeans and clodhopper shoes – excepting an old lady with an oxygen tank who wanders through in the opening dressed as if from another play.

Language and Dialect Coach Mouna R’miki deserves a standing ovation.

Photos by Matthew Murphy
Opening: The Band led by Tony Shaloub

The Band’s Visit
Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek; Book by Itamar Moses
Based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin
Music Director: Andrea Grody; Orchestrations: Jamishied Sharifi
Directed by David Cromer
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street

About Alix Cohen (1793 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.