Feed your soul: Go see The Band’s Visit. Now that this exquisite musical has moved uptown to Broadway – it opened tonight at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre – I can make that recommendation with only one caveat, which is to spring for center orchestra seats, but more about that later. The rare film-to-musical adaptation that enhances the source material, The Band’s Visit has stayed with me in the year since it opened off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company, like a dream from which I never wanted to awaken.
Based on Eran Kolirin’s disarming 2007 Israeli comedy of the same name, the show features a beautiful score by David Yazbek, the crazy-gifted composer/lyricist of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Full Monty and Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. The book, based on Kolirin’s screenplay, is by Itamar Moses who, with the late Michael Friedman, wrote the under-appreciated musical Fortress Of Solitude. David Cromer’s production and an incomparable ensemble led by Tony Shalhoub (Monk) and Katrina Lenk (in the second of two leading roles last season, which included her stunning turn in Indecent, set for broadcast November 17 on PBS’ “Great Performances” series), could not be bettered.
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After a brief opening scene at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, the show moves to its major setting, Bet Hatikvah, a desolate pinprick in the Negev desert. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has traveled from Egypt to play for the grand 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, adding with a barely concealed snipe that conveys remorse and contempt, “not culture, not Israeli culture, not Arab culture, not culture at all.” Much merriment is made of the difference between Bet Hatikvah and the band’s actual destination, Petah Tikvah, a city a few miles outside Tel Aviv. “Build a road to the middle of the desert,” Dina sings in “Welcome to Nowhere,” “pour cement on the spot in the desert, that’s Bet Hatikvah.”
So here the band is, some half a dozen strong, stuffed into Sergeant Pepper finery and lugging their instruments, with nowhere to go until another bus the next day. Scott Pasek’s set resembles nothing so much as a photo illustration from a catalogue for concrete. The dingy grays, washed out in Tyler Micoleau’s sun-bleached lighting, suggest this memorably unmemorable place without caricaturing it, as do Sara Laux’ unfussily elegant clothes.
Dina offers food and housing for the night, which the uptight and most formal Tewfiq declines, until the players intervene. Through broken English, the café family, along with a few other townspeople, negotiate détente, an overnight stay. At the center are Dina, toughened 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 their cases, the shells prove brittle and easily breached. Dina, persistent and all but jumping out of her skin with boredom, and Tewfiq, terrified of letting down his guard, slowly connect, a bonding beyond music that includes the films of Omar Sharif and most of all the discovery that disappointment needn’t equal death. Lenk, long-limbed and alluring, and Shalhoub, who excels at playing stiffs who are really just in need of revival, take their time tunneling into each other. In a compact 95-minute show that insists on not rushing anything, that’s a remarkable accomplishment.
Indeed, each 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). He plays wing-man to the sexually inexperienced Papi (Etai Benson), a willing student. There are the young parents (John Cariani and Kristen Sieh) struggling with stasis. At a phone booth in the middle of the middle of nowhere, a man (Adam Kantor) 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. The melodic shard will evolve into a kind of spiritual offering.
Cromer (Our Town, The Adding Machine) is perhaps the most choreographic of today’s star directors, and The Band’s Visit flows as if in a seamless, tidal movement, like an ode (Patrick McCollum is the choreographer). Credit for this is also due to the astonishing musicianship of the band members, who play their instruments (filled out by a hidden orchestra), and Yazbek’s gorgeous score, a Broadway beauty suffused with Muslim sinuosity and percussion, like Moroccan seasoning sparking a familiar dish, as well as the soul-tugging reedy blues of Jewish klezmer .
As to that caveat I mentioned earlier: While many of my colleagues and I felt this was the best musical in a season that included Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away, we also wondered how this intimate little show would transfer to a Broadway house. The Barrymore is not the right space for The Band’s Visit unless you’re down front, where they put the critics and the high rollers. I’m compelled to report that I’ve never received so many similar complaints from unhappy theatergoers given less favorable seats, especially in the balcony, who found the sound muddled and the sight lines limited. I have to wonder how many from the creative team have watched from those seats.
That said, my affection for the show is undiminished. The Band’s Visit 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.” Not true!
Julia Cho’s Office Hour, which opened earlier this week at the Public Theater, couldn’t be more timely: It’s set on college campus where Gina (Sue Jean Kim) teaches a creative writing seminar. In the opening scene, Gina is commiserating with two other teachers (Greg Keller and Adeola Role) about Dennis (Ki Hong Lee) whose reputation as a problem student, and a scary one at that, precedes him. He shrouds himself in hoodie gear that hides his face, refuses to take part in class discussions, and submits work full of grotesquely violent scenes. He always keeps his backpack within reach.
There are sufficient warnings (including explicit ones on entering the theater) that things will not go well. So much murderous violence rings in our ears daily that we have to leap back beyond the most recent horrors to the events a decade ago at Virginia Tech, when a deranged student with a semi-automatic rifle murdered 32 people before taking his own life.
It seems beside the point to say such violence lacks credibility when our culture is drowning in incredible gun lust. Yet Cho seems more interested in a conventional teacher-with-a-savior-complex melodrama than a serious exploration of the larger issue, and that’s where Office Hour comes up short. Gina is determined to flout the advice of her colleagues and draw Dennis out of his shell. Unfortunately, even as played by the very game Kim, Gina is, to put it kindly, a flibbertigibbet with boundary issues who could probably drive Bambi to violence. The inevitable Armageddon seems both tasteless and dramatically unearned.
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