Some shows are so full of heart and so overflowing with integrity — of talent, of skill and of purpose – that a critic is torn between singing its praises from the rooftops and wanting to protect something rare and fragile. Even when, truth to tell, a great show is usually a tough one as well, able to withstand the pressure of raves and the demand to sacrifice a little bit of proximity to reach a wider audience. That was true of Rent, and Spring Awakening and, of course, Hamilton. None of those musicals started out small the way The Band’s Visit has, but this exquisite musical, this perfect jewel of a show, is, like them, not only deserving of a wider audience but also could not be a better agent of hope in a time desperately in need of it.
Which is not to say, Do your duty and attend The Band’s Visit; spinach it isn’t. The Band’s Visit is an intimate musical that delights the ear and tugs at the soul, a show in which little happens and everything changes, possibly even your world view. Based on Eran Kolirin’s ingratiating 2007 Israeli film comedy, the show features the best score yet from David Yazbek, and that’s saying something for the composer/lyricist of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Full Monty and Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown — shows whose only shared characteristic is a stylistic expansiveness that is the mark of a true Broadway sharpshooter.
The book, based on Kolirin’s screenplay, is by Itamar Moses, who co-wrote the under-appreciated musical Fortress Of Solitude. David Cromer’s production at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross mainstage, with an incomparable ensemble led by Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, could not be bettered. It belongs in a Broadway theater that won’t overpower it, such as Circle In The Square or the Helen Hayes. Producers take note.
Enough about my reaction, what about the show? It’s set in Bet Hatikvah, a desolate outpost in the Negev desert, where the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has traveled from Egypt to play for the opening of the Arab Cultural Center. Arriving at a café in what passes for the town center, they’re informed they’ve come to the wrong place.
“There is not Arab Center here,” Dina (Lenk) tells the orchestra’s leader, Tewfiq (Shalhoub). “No Arab Culture Center?” he asks in disbelief. “No,” she replies. “No. Not culture, not Israeli culture, not Arab culture, not culture at all.” A bus has taken them to a town with a similar name, and here the band is, some half a dozen strong, dressed in their Sergeant Pepper finery and lugging their instruments, with nowhere to go until another bus the next day. “Build a road to the middle of the desert,” Dina sings, “Pour cement on the spot in the desert, that’s Bet hatikvah. Welcome to nowhere.” Scott Pasek’s bleached set, bathed in Tyler Micoleau’s intense lighting, establish this memorable place without caricaturing it, as do Sara Laux’ unfussily elegant clothes.
And so the orchestra and the café family, along with a few other townspeople, negotiate detente, an overnight stay. At the center are Dina, hardened by disappointment yet not impervious to the challenge of these lost strangers, and Tewfiq, who has learned to cloak his own sadness in the carapace of officiousness. In both cases, the shells prove brittle and easily breached. The glinting, radiant Lenk and the achingly vulnerable Shalhoub connect, a bonding beyond music that include the films of Omar Sharif and most of all the discovery that disappointment needn’t equal death.
Every character is carefully fleshed out over the course of the show’s single act. Ari’el Stachel is Haled, the trumpeter eager for extra-curricular activity (“Do you know Chet Baker?” is his pick-up line). His wing-man is the inexperienced Papi (Daniel David Stewart), a willing student. There are the young parents (John Cariani and Kristen Sieh) whose love is suffering the consequences of a more callow stage of disappointment. At a phone booth in the middle of the middle of nowhere, a man (Erik Liberman) waits, night after night, for a call from his beloved, flustered and anguished when anyone dares to make a call. And there is the band’s clarinetist, Simon (Alok Tewari), who plays the ethereal fragment of a concerto he can’t bring himself to finish. It becomes a kind of spiritual offering.
Cromer (Our Town, The Adding Machine), working with Patrick McCollum and Lee Sher on dance and movement, is perhaps the most choreographic of today’s star directors. The Band’s Visit flows as if in a single, tidal movement, like an ode. The show begins and ends with these words: “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.” Let’s call that fake news. For even if it never actually happened, The Band’s Visit is very, very important.