Desert Awakening in ‘The Band’s Visit’
music & lyrics by DAVID YAZBEK (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Full Monty)
book by ITAMAR MOSES (Fortress of Solitude, Completeness)
based on the screenplay by ERAN KOLIRIN
directed by DAVID CROMER (Tribes, Our Town, Atlantic’s Women or Nothing)
music director: ANDREA GRODY
Boredom has never sounded sexier than it does in “The Band’s Visit,” the beautiful new musical by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses that opened on Thursday night at the Atlantic Theater Company. Most of the show is set in a small Israeli town where, its residents are eager to tell you, absolutely nothing happens.
The name of this unhappy little village is not to be confused (as it crucially is by one of the show’s characters) with that of the bigger and more eventful Petah Tikvah. No, Bet Hatikva begins with a B, as in “basically bleak and beige and blah blah blah.”
Yet as intoned in the opening song of this slyly seductive show, directed by an inspired David Cromer and starring a chemically bonded Tony Shalhouband Katrina Lenk, such arid adjectives have a way of springing into bloom, perfuming the air with a yearning that teases the senses. All that “blah blah blah” is steeped in a somnolent restlessness that promises sweet awakenings.
Never mind its reputation as dullsville. Bet Hatikva is a place you want to visit if you’re looking for signs of new and exciting life in the contemporary American musical. In this case, that includes one of the season’s most exquisitely wrought scores (by Mr. Yazbek, of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and “The Full Monty,” who here seamlessly folds Middle Eastern rhythms and inflections into Broadway balladry).
Based on Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film of the same title, “The Band’s Visit” uses a well-worn formula that hasn’t stopped being recycled since Oedipus stumbled into Thebes. That’s the good old story of a stranger — or in this case strangers, an entire Egyptian police band — arriving in a sleepy town and shaking it to its foundations.
Think of “The Rainmaker,” “Shane” or even “The Music Man,” in which that stranger’s kiss (or gunshot or con act) winds up transforming lives forever. “The Band’s Visit” flirts with the clichés of such a scenario, and then triumphantly fails to consummate them. Just when you think it’s going to deliver big on an anticipated clincher, it pulls back, and that withdrawal feels far more satisfying than the expected obvious climax.
Consider, for example, the possible political implications of the plot. A group of Egyptian musicians — the grandly named Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra — comes to Israel to open an Arab cultural center but winds up in the wrong place. (When booking the tickets, they crucially confuse that previously mentioned “P” and “B.”)
Uninvited Arabs in Israel? Surely, we can anticipate a fraught cultural collision and a subsequent feel-good reconciliation, proving that even perceived adversaries have more in common than they thought. But nationalistic tensions are touched upon only glancingly.
Instead, the Bet Hatikvans are delighted, in their low-key way, by the mere novelty of these traveling musicians, led by their dignity-conscious conductor, Tewfiq (an affectingly understated Mr. Shalhoub), who wear robin’s-egg-blue uniforms that make the townspeople think of Michael Jackson. Bet Hatikva, after all, is the sort of place whose inception is described in these lyrics:
“Stick a pin in a map of the desert./Build a road in the middle of the desert./Pour cement on the spot in the desert.”
That helpful geography lesson is delivered early by Dina (Ms. Lenk, in a knockout performance), the proprietor of a cafe where unfamiliar customers are unheard-of. It is Dina — whose wry ennui seems both provincial and worldly — who arranges lodging for the band’s members when it emerges they’ll be stuck in Bet Hatikva for the night.
Yes, just one fateful night, in which anything can happen, right, especially among such a desperately lonely crew? Among the Alexandrians, there’s Haled (Ari’el Stachel), the trumpeter and a ladies’ man with two ready-made pickup lines; Simon (Alok Tewari), the clarinetist and the composer of an unfinished concerto; and the laconic Camal, the violinist (George Abud).
The Bet Hatikvans of note include the unhappily married young couple Itzik (John Cariani) and Iris (Kristen Sieh), who live with her father, Avrum (Andrew Polk), and their baby; the girl-wary Papi (Daniel David Stewart, who has a fabulous tongue-tied solo) and that unnamed, defeated-looking guy (Erik Liberman) who can be found loitering with intent beside an outdoor public telephone that never rings.
Now try to imagine the points of connection for these archetypal figures, who conveniently (for New York audiences) communicate in English, a language they (sort of) share. You’ll be wrong. Like the movie that inspired it, “The Band’s Visit” finds its compelling texture not in dramatic consequences but in the abiding truths of unfulfilled lives.
This wistfulness permeates every aspect of the show. That includes Scott Pask’s set, which makes devilishly clever use of its rotating stage; Sarah Laux’s unobtrusively characterful costumes, and Tyler Micoleau’s desert-night lighting. Mr. Cromer, who delivered an innovative “Our Town” for the ages in 2009, brings out the eloquence in the surrounding silence and in small, often aborted gestures.
Though Mr. Moses’s efficient script operates from a similar sense of understatement, the spoken scenes can occasionally drag, making you a shade too conscious of the assumed foreign accents. But whenever the show sings, Mr. Yazbek’s music transports you to a place both exotic and touchingly familiar.
By that I don’t mean so much a remoter region of Israel as a state of mind in which we all exist at times. That’s the land of never-was and might-have-been, of the ache of lost illusions that we massage into something pleasurable.
This sensibility is given especially ravishing life by Ms. Lenk (seen on Broadway in “Once,” which “The Band’s Visit” resembles in its delicate, off-center charm). With her matter-of-fact sensuality and embattled confidence, she summons the jaded yet sensitive allure of the European film sirens Anouk Aimée and Simone Signoret.
Dina, recalling the childhood pleasures of experiencing Egyptian music and movies sings, about, “A jasmine wind from the west, from the south/Honey in my ears, spice in my mouth.” That’s the sound of Ms. Lenk’s voice, too, which seems steeped in a longing that feels complete unto itself.
There’s not a performance, or a sung note, that feels out of key here, though. When the ensemble, led by Mr. Liberman, delivers the show’s final number, “Answer Me,” the music takes on a transcendent harmonic shimmer that stops the heart. An answer is hardly guaranteed, but there’s untold enchantment in the asking.