Broadway Review: ‘The Band’s Visit’

Seamless transfer of this heart-warming musical brings Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk together in a drowsy Israeli village in the middle of the desert.

The set’s a bit grander and the music sounds richer, but success hasn’t spoiled this embraceable musical fable about the surprising friendships that bloom in the middle of a political desert. In this Broadway transfer of an Off Broadway hit, human error sends an Egyptian military band to a depressed Israeli outpost in a desert wasteland — and human connections bring Arabs and Israelis together on common ground.

Tony Shalhoub remains steadfast as lovable Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, the modest commander of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. The band was headed for the Arab Cultural Center in sophisticated Petah Tikvah, but was misdirected to Bet Hatikvah, a bleak little village in the middle of nowhere. Katrina Lenk is even more earth-shaking as Dina, the beautiful and incredibly vital café owner who is wasting away in Bet Hatikvah but comes alive when the band unexpectedly arrives in her little ghost town.

Broadway theatergoers looking for something off-the-beaten-musical-track should be charmed by this unassuming show, written by Itamar Moses (book) and David Yazbek (music & lyrics) and tenderly directed by David Cromer. But this disarming musical has the emotional depth that holds up to repeated viewings and the offbeat charm that could make it a cult hit.

“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.”  That unassuming statement, projected on the back wall of Scott Pask’s plain and simple (and amusing) set, is enough to grab the most jaded audience.

Actually, the visit turned out to be very important, on a universally human level. But not at first glance, when Tewfiq turns up at a bus station in Israel with his little band of musicians. The show’s musicians are onstage, trying to look like villagers, but members of that extraordinary band are occasionally called upon to pick up instruments of their own — and in some cases, play them very well.

Although the band is smartly outfitted in costumer Sarah Laux’s baby-blue ersatz-military uniforms, their government funding is in peril, and they absolutely must not screw up their assignment to perform at the initiation ceremony of the Arab Culture Center in Peta Tikva. The political and cultural significance of this mission weighs heavily on the fanatically steadfast Tewfiq, who stands ramrod straight (but is dying inside) in Shalhoub’s painfully honest performance.

Like other obsessive characters he has played, most notably Adrian Monk, the beloved OCD-wracked detective he inhabited for seven years on TV, Tewfiq transcends conventional character comedy. In Shalhoub’s hands, he is simultaneously funny and sad and a little bit crazy, and you absolutely have to love him.  When disaster strikes, Tewfiq stiffens his spine and stands straighter. And strike it does when the musicians are misdirected at the bus station. Instead of sophisticated Petah Tikvah, they find themselves in Bet Hatikvah, a dreary town in the middle of the desert.

Thanks to the revolving set and some quicksilver lighting changes by Tyler Micoleau, we can take in the whole town at a glance.  In “Waiting,” the first of the many nuanced (vaguely Arabic, vaguely Israeli, altogether enchanting) musical numbers in Yazbek’s wonderful score, the depressed residents are quick to tell the band what their uneventful life is like.  And in “Welcome to Nowhere,” Dina is joined by other disheartened residents to express their sense of isolation and their hopeless yearning for some kind of human connection.

With nowhere to go and nothing to do until the first bus arrives in the morning, the Egyptians are warily taken in by the Israelis, who reluctantly feed them, house them, and in one scene that is simply out of this world, entertain them at the circa 1970s roller rink.

Although no one exchanges a word about incendiary Arab-Israeli political matters, visitors and hosts slowly begin to acknowledge their common humanity. In “Haled’s Song About Love” (sung with romantic intensity by Ari’el Stachel), the tall, handsome ladies’ man in the band takes pity on a bashful young man (Etai Benson) and shows him how to woo a girl.

There’s nothing big or grand here. Connections are made on little things, everyday things, common things we all share. The transcendent moment of the show comes when the so-called Telephone Guy (the fantastic Adam Kantor) makes one final, desperate effort to reach someone on that infuriatingly silent telephone.  “Can you answer me?” he begs. And the entire ensemble does exactly that.

Broadway Review: ‘The Band’s Visit’
Ethel Barrymore Theater; 1,046 seats; $169 top. Opened Nov. 9, 2017. Reviewed Nov. 4. Running time: ONE HOUR, 35 MIN.

Production
A presentation by Orin Wolf, StylesFour Productions, Evamere Entertainment, Atlantic Theater Company, David F. Schwartz, Barbara Broccoli, Frederick Zollo, Grove*Reg, Lassen Blume Baldwin, Thomas Steven Perakos, Marc Platt, The Shubert Organization, The Baruch / Routh / Frankel / Viertel Group, Robert Cole, Deroy-Carr-Klausner, Federman-Moellenberg, Roy Furman, FVSL Theatricals, Hendel-Karmazin, Horipro, IPN, Jam Theatricals, The John Gore Organization, Koenigsberg-Krauss, David Mirvish, James L. Nederlander, Al Nocciolino, Once Upon a Time Productions, Susan Rose, Paul Shiverick, and Executive Producer Allan Williams of a musical, originally presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, in one act with book by Itamar Moses, based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin, and with music & lyrics by David Yazbek.

Creative
Directed by David Cromer. Choreography by Patrick McCollum. Music director & additional arrangements by Andrea Grody. Orchestrations, Jamshied Sharifi. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Sarah Laux, lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Kai Harada; projections, Maya Ciarrocchi, hair & wigs, Charles G. LaPointe; production stage manager, Richard Hodge

Cast
Tony Shalhoub, Katrina Lenk, John Cariani, Ari’el Sachel, Andrew Polk, Etai Benson, George Abud, Adam Kantor, Bill Army, Rachel Prather, Jonathan Raviv, Sharone Sayegh, Kristen Sieh, Alok Tewari, Ossama Farouk, Sam Sadigursky, Harvey Valdes, Garo Yellin.