By Reuven Glezer
Describing The Band’s Visit as a musical might seem deceptive to some at first. After the 90 minutes of emotional sundering, intimate heartbreaks, and quieter, more muted musicality, it’s no wonder the show seems to be changing the meaning of what a musical can be. The show, with the book written by Itamar Moses (The Fortress of Solitude) and music and lyrics by David Yazbek (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Full Monty), defies expectations of the endless showstoppers and the traditional “Broadway sound”. If anything, rather than the story needlessly trying to make it to the next song, the jazz-infused, Middle Eastern-inspired score glides gently into the story like blood through a vein. Yazbek has created a world not through story supplemented by song, but by a story made of songs.
The musical, based off the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, tells the story of an Egyptian police orchestra who, due to a tiny miscommunication, find themselves in the wrong town in Israel. Instead of the cultured Petah Tikva, where they are due to play at an Arab cultural center, they find themselves in Bet Hatikvah, a tiny, unimportant place in the middle of the desert. As the locals say, “Pick a sandhill of your choosing.” The band, led by Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria (Tony Shalhoub), are invited to stay the night by the local cafe owner, Dina (Katrina Lenk), so that they can grab the morning bus.
Cue the grandest change from every musical on Broadway – there is no main driver of a plot, nor are the resolutions introduced (if you can even call them that) some major sea change in the center of a conflict. The victories for both the band and the people are Bet Hatikvah are the tiny victories that make boring lives just a little bit easier and a little more exciting. Babies lulled to sleep and working past personal anxiety are what can mean most to people where life never changes.
This is likely best exemplified by Katrina Lenk’s grand number, “Omar Sharif”, wherein she describes the music and movies from Egypt that defined her childhood and the place they’ve made in her heart. The song, brought in by an ominous yet gentle melody on piano, feels far more than a woman telling a stranger about her life. It’s an ode to the things that gave us glimpses of a life beyond a window in the kitchen, where the horizon finally does change for people who aren’t the people of Bet Hatikvah.
For such a quiet place where so little happens, the music that resuscitates the lives of the people there is appropriately simpler than the 40-piece orchestras of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. However, it would be downright insulting to suggest it’s any way less powerful than something more allegedly “complex.” The show’s final number, “Answer Me”, gorgeously unites the cast and band in a long cry for noise in the quiet of the Negev Desert. The tune, led by the eternally vigil Telephony Guy (Adam Kantor), is slowly brought into place by Sam Sadigursky’s mournful clarinet, and asks where the people we love are and whether there’s someone to fill the empty spaces in our lives.
David Yazbek has created something beyond different in The Band’s Visit – he’s forged a new way for musical theater to be empathetic without being sappy or twee while simultaneously expanding the sonic expectations of a mainstream musical. While the hip-hop and R&B history that is Hamilton and the electropop opera that was Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 were also musically innovative, they too relied on narrative pacing that allowed for major number after major number to fill through the bulk of their respective dramaturgical arcs (it also helped that both of these musicals were sung-through).
It would be inappropriate to not also recognize the efforts of the people that made up the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, whose affecting instrumentals, such as “Haj-Butrus,” invigorated the show in ways few purely instrumental segments can. Ossama Farouk (riq, darbouk), George Abud (violin), Sam Sadigursky (clarinet, saxophone, flute), Harvey Valdes (oud, guitar), and Garo Yellin (cello) make the Orchestra a presence beyond a plot device or a human prop under both the music supervision of Andrea Grody & Dean Sharenow and the minimalistic staging by director David Cromer.
The Band’s Visit is a show that asks not necessarily what we want and how to obtain what we want, but what is missing from our lives and how we might deal with the reality of empty spaces in our souls. Itamar Moses’ book and Yazbek’s music ask those questions not by the crash of an orchestra but by lullabies from struggling fathers (“Itzhik’s Lullaby”) and words of advice on how to talk to girls (“Haled’s Song about Love”). In such a funny, brisk, and gentle show as this, the showstopper traditionally associated with the Broadway musical would have only deepened the cracks in a broken heart rather than healed them with the electrifying solos of George Abud’s violin. If only more shows would follow suit.
(Photo Credit: The Band’s Visit FB Page)