In this case, Stephen Sondheim is wrong.
“Nice is different than good,” he had Little Red Ridinghood ungrammatically assert in INTO THE WOODS. But THE BAND’S VISIT is a nice musical that is also good.
To be specific, it’s very nice and extraordinarily good.
Kudos to the small off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company for daring to do a musical with a payroll of – gulp! – 17.
The show begins with the statement “You probably didn’t hear about it” projected on a scrim; it’s said again 90 intermissionless minutes later. This could be inaccurate in your case, for you may know the much-acclaimed 2007 film on which this musical is based.
Also projected at the start and said at the end is “It wasn’t very important.” Ah, but it was – for Eran Kolirin’s screenplay that inspired Itamar Moses’ book and David Yazbek’s score shows the inherent goodness of human nature. And if that isn’t important to remember in these troubled times, what is?
Just as we recently heard that a John Podesta staffer’s writing “legitimate” when he meant “ILlegitimate” may have sunk Hillary Clinton’s chances for the presidency, a similar mistake brings The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra to a destination in Israel and not the Arab Cultural center where it had expected to play. The musicians will find that Petah Tikva in Israel is a far cry – and a far distance — from Bet Hatikva where they thought they’d be.
“Welcome to nowhere,” says Dina, who runs a small café in this oh-so-remote town. That “welcome” is more than the Egyptians inferred they’d get, for they’re in uniform, which makes them feel like sitting targets.
Nobody, however, is interested in shooting; instead, all the Israelis are fine about the Egyptians sitting with them. What surprise the men register when Dina adds “We will be honored to have the orchestra.” They can’t believe that they’re being judged as musicians first and Egyptians second.
Tewfiq, the orchestra’s leader, is even reluctant to partake in the meal that Dina sets out for him. Mind you, he isn’t obstreperous about it; he’s polite and well-mannered. Still, any kindness after a lifetime of distrust is hard to digest.
But Tewfiq is HUNGRY. And that human need is more important than the human option to hate.
There’s an old song that proclaims “I like a Gershwin tune – how about you?” Indeed, an Israeli’s singing of one of the great composer’s most illustrious songs brings shy smiles of recognition from the Egyptians and also brings the two parties together. That Dina enjoys Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum and Omar Sharif’s films reminds us that art unites people and that music does indeed hath charms to soothe the savage breasts and trigger-fingers.
But there will be no gunshots. Instead, THE BAND’S VISIT may historically be the musical with the most silence in it. These are the moments when an Israeli or an Egyptian either doesn’t know what to say to the other or is weighing his words carefully. Now if the silences were too short, they wouldn’t make enough impact. Making them too long would result in our being bored and looking at our watches. Neither scenario takes place, for director David Cromer amazingly makes the silences j-u-s-t the right length to convey the tension; he knows precisely when to relieve them, too.
Yet even after Dina’s olive branch of music and movies, Tewfiq feels compelled to say “Not everyone feels like you. People care about other things.” Dina responds with “People are stupid.”
Yes and no. The strength of THE BAND’S VISIT is the opposite of a musical theater tenet that Peter (1776) Stone liked to make. He said that if you approach each member of the audience after a show and ask what’s wrong with it, you’ll get no cogent information. But if you listen to the audience as a whole, you’ll learn where your show is working and where it isn’t.
THE BAND’S VISIT proves an opposite and more important principle. Israel and Egypt don’t get along as countries, but if one Israeli had the chance to simply talk one-on-one with an Egyptian, each might very well find commonalities and ways to get along.
Moses’ strong work is complemented by Yazbek, who gets many sounds of the Middle East in his music but carefully eschews esotericism for Broadway accessibility. He doesn’t settle for easy rhymes but only allows in fresh ones. If you’ve ever seen a musical where “touchy-feely” rhymes with “Swahili” or “falafel” with “awful,” do let me know.
Tony Shalhoub conveys that Tewfiq has the weight of the part on his shoulders and soul. Little by little, however, he makes Tewfiq come out of his shell – or should we say cocoon? For that’s what he seemingly sheds to become as beautiful as a butterfly that flies high. Despite the dour and tentative nature of the role, Shalhoub does get one funny moment – when expressing Tewfiq’s love of fishing, he makes the perfect sound of a bobber landing in the water.
As Dina, Katrina Lenk has the soul of a belly dancer in the way that she moves her arms and hands, which seem to be caressing the air. She knows how to build the song “Omar Sharif,” for her enthusiasm for the star increases as she recalls how much he’s affected her.
More important is her take on Tewfiq: “He’s something different,” she decides. Yes, opposites attract, as we all appreciate in others the qualities we don’t possess in order to complete ourselves. That’s why we need stories such as this one to remind us.
Two others who play Israelis stand out. Andrew Polk says he doesn’t mind talking about the fate of his wife, but soon after he starts, he and we see that he’s emotionally over his head. John Cariani’s character is one who giggles after most every sentence – and who in our contemporary theater is better at honest giggling than Cariani?
THE BAND’S VISIT’s best asset is its confidence in just being itself.
It’s so quiet that there’s no official “eleven o’clock number,” so one is provided after the curtain calls. Here’s where the musicians take center stage and play with brio as the others joyously dance as if they’re in “Brotherhood of Man” – which, when you think of it, could be a title for this unusual and unusually satisfying musical.
You may e-mail Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.