Review by Kathleen Campion
This thoroughly enjoyable new musical is the Seinfeld-of-musicals, in that nothing much happens — but it gently embraces all that is elemental about living life.
Expectations are set low from the get-go. As the music swells and the lights fade, a legend on a dropped screen says:
“Once not long ago a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt.”
This vanishes. Then:
“You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”
The press release offers a fair plot synopsis:
“After a mix-up at the border, an Egyptian Police Band is sent to a remote village in the middle of the Israeli desert. With no bus until morning and no hotel in sight, these unlikely travelers are taken in by the locals.”
In a world where nothing ever happens, something has happened: the band’s visit.
The woman at the heart of the story, Dina (Katrina Lenk), is stunning. You cannot watch anyone else on set when she is there. She is at once a jungle cat of want, and a calico, all too ready to curl in the banal window seat of her own making. Dina sizes up the situation and chooses her target, the commander/conductor of the police band, Tewfig, tenderly rendered by the subtle and delicious Tony Shalhoub. Dina feeds them all in her cafe and disperses them to homes for the night.
The seamless commingling of the Egyptian and Israeli cultures triggers stray thoughts of all they have in their shared history and geography. There is nothing here of noisy politics nor ancient grudge — no wounded pride nor precious grievance — just the hospitable locals and the grateful strangers wandering in the desert.
The music has an earthy, familiar, convivial quality. It feels old and new at once. Certainly composer David Yazbek relies on centuries of sound to start, then slips in “My Funny Valentine” and “Summertime” and, more to the point, infuses all of the sound with desert dust and contemporary tinge. There is the “jasmine wind…bringing honey in my ears, spice in my mouth.” At the same time, references to Michael Jackson and to Tewfig being “cute in his Sgt. Pepper suit” keep us relatively current.
There’s a string of powerful one-on-one exchanges as the band members slip into the homes of the locals. A musician, stuck on his own composition, plays someone’s crying baby to sleep with his newest notes. A teenager paralyzed by his fear of girls, is gentled not into “breaking the ice” but “melting the ice.” by one of the more worldly musicians. A widower, a local musician, wistfully revisits falling in love with his wife as he tells his guest of their meeting as she danced to his music.
There is an amazing man/woman scene in which Dina has cajoled Tewfig to sing for her. He is singing in Arabic, so while she is beguiled, she doesn’t know if he is singing a love song or a hymn…or maybe about fishing. He sings his song and she sings her internal monologue of hope and worry. It is a beautiful pas de duex, and only one of the many grace notes here.
Among those is the casual pleasure of nearly constant, live, real music, as the musicians sit in twos and threes and fives, doing what musicians do. The music is a steady counterpoint to the spoken word and to the plot-driven songs. It cradles the action and often is the action. I would love to go back with a musicologist to find out what I don’t know about what I heard — compelling, inviting, unusual sound.
The pace of this 95-minute production is all but perfect. The mix of foot-stomping, jump-up-and-join-us numbers artfully juxtaposed with quiet, sweet, introspective solos and duets, is just right. Add to that, the story line keeps you wondering, as the clock it ticking, and the band’s visit is just over night; they must be on to play at the cultural center a long, dusty bus ride away. So all must resolve in short order.
As the band prepares to leave and the threads of the several stories are not quite knit together, I wondered how director, David Cromer, would power the finale. The whole cast, (and it’s a huge cast) floods the stage and offers a lovely, lyrical, touching finish. But, it is too soft for the closer. For a minute or two a sense of disappointment hangs in the air. And then? One great idea! I won’t spoil it for you.
The Band’s Visit – Music and lyrics by David Yazbek; book by Itamar Moses; based on a screenplay by Eran Kolirin; directed by David Cromer.
WITH: Katrina Lenk (Dina), Tony Shalhoub (Tewfiq), John Cariani (Itzik), Ari’el Stachel (Haled), George Abud (Camal), Etai Benson (Papi), Adam Kantor (Telephone Guy), Andrew Polk (Avrum), Bill Army (Zelger), Rachel Prather (Julia), Jonathan Raviv (Sammy), Sharone Sayegh (Anna), Kristen Sieh (Iris), Alok Tewari (Simon). The musicians: Ossama Farouk, Sam Sadigursky, Harvey Valdes, Garo Yellen.
Designed by Scott Pask; lighting by Tyler Micoleau; sound by Kai Harada; costumes by Sarah Laux. Presented by Orin Wolf, Stylesfour Productions, Evamere Entertainment, and Atlantic Theater Company. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, Manhattan. Through April 29. Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission.