REVIEW: The Band's Visit -- Original Broadway Cast

Recording CoverIn the entrancing new musical The Band’s Visit by composer/lyricist David Yazbek and librettist Itamar Moses, Dina, the owner of a local Israeli café, sings about musician Umm Kulthum and film star Omar Sharif who, via Egyptian movies, “came floating on a jasmine wind/From the west, from the south/Honey in my ears/Spice in my mouth/Dark and thrilling/Strange and sweet.” Such lush lyrics, evocative and exotic, also perfectly describe the score of this gorgeously understated musical about an Egyptian military band that takes a wrong turn and ends up in the Podunk Israeli town of Bet Hatikvah for the night.

Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Band’s Visit is a virtually plotless character-driven show. It was a forgettable film when I first saw it when it premiered, but with the magic of David Yazbek’s music and lyrics, this slight tale is elevated into something much bigger than itself, a story of yearning, of missed opportunities, of subdued cultural difference. It’s not surprising that Yazbek does wonders with this material; he is one of Broadway’s most gifted but I would argue underappreciated writers. His first show The Full Monty premiered when another musical known as The Producers (maybe you’ve heard of it?) happened to open in the same season leaving The Full Monty and Yazbek’s breakout score in the dust. Since then, Yazbek has had success (although no Tony Award) with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and even Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which, while a flawed show, has a fascinating and enthralling score. It’s this last show’s score, which The Band’s Visit most evokes, although the guitars of Spain have been traded in for a number of instruments not typically heard on Broadway: the oud, the darbouka, and the riq, all perfectly orchestrated by Jamshied Sharifi and conducted by music director Andrea Grody.

The premise of The Band’s Visit is quite simple. When the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Egypt ends up in the nowhere city of Bet Hatikvah instead of the more culturally significant Petah Tikvah, they find themselves stranded for the night and are forced to seek food and shelter from the town’s Israeli residents. What results is a story of Israeli/Arab awkward cultural encounters that are soon wiped away as the band and residents come to appreciate each other and bond through music. Grounding the story is the wisp of a romance between Dina (the sultry voiced Katrina Lenk) and Tewfiq (TV Monk’s Tony Shalhoub), the band’s conductor. Despite a kiss between the two as the evening wears on, the reality of their lives, as we intuit from the beginning, is that only if this were a different world, might there be hope for this budding couple. And yet, while the two go their separate ways after this one electrically charged night, it is undeniable that the two, despite limits of language and culture, share things in common. In the show’s signature song, “Omar Sharif,” which will surely go on to become a cabaret staple in years to come, so sly and sinuous is its bewitching melody, we learn that while Dina might be Israeli, her love for Egyptian culture runs deep.

Dina, played by Lenk in what is a breakout musical performance, gets the majority of the show’s numbers, but this is really a communal musical, in which each of the townspeople has a story of their own to tell. It’s to Yazbek’s credit as a lyricist that despite our short encounters with each character that they emerge fully realized. One individual, only known as “Telephone Man” (Adam Kantor), has been waiting by a telephone for days waiting for his girlfriend to call (“Answer Me”), a longing for connection that essentially all the residents of Bet Hatikvah share. Meanwhile Israeli Papi (Etai Benson) who expresses his shyness in asking out a girl in “Papi Hears the Ocean” (which evokes “Model Behavior” from Women on the Verge), gets love advice from Egyptian Haled in “Haled’s Song About Love.” It should also be said that for all of the delicious romanticism of Yazbek’s music, the score also continues to reveal Yazbek’s astute comedic skills as a lyricist, notably in the song “Welcome to Nowhere” in which the town’s residents tell the Egyptian band how boring their town is: “Where you are, this not Petah Tikvah/Such a city, nobody knows it./Not a fun, not a art, not a culture. This is Bet Hatikva—with a ‘B.’”

Listeners familiar with Yazbek’s music will recognize certain musical tropes, but they are completely transformed here with the Middle Eastern instrumentation. In fact, the show features a number of wordless instrumental interludes (“Soraya,” “Haj-Butrus,” and the final Concert number) in which the band is allowed to show off their musical prowess. Indeed, The Band’s Visit is very much about the power of music itself to connect people across language boundaries and cultural differences. As the Israeli and Egyptian characters make music together in the show, so too do we believe, if just for a moment, that peace in the Middle East truly is possible, perhaps via the elusive medium that is art.

The album by Ghostlight Records is perfectly produced and with all of its Middle Eastern melodies, often sounds more like a musical window into another world than a cast album. In a season of SpongeBob SquarePants and the forthcoming Margaritaville, how delightful it is to have such an adult sophisticated score on Broadway now captured by an outstanding cast album. Here’s hoping that this is the year that David Yazbek finally wins his deserved Tony Award for Best Score.


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