No roaring lions. No witches defying gravity. No genies granting three wishes. There’s little question that The Band’s Visit, the touching fable now bowing at the Barrymore Theatre (after an acclaimed, multi-award-wining run last season at the Atlantic Theater Company) is far from your standard Broadway musical fare. In fact, it can best be summed up by the title of one of gifted composer-lyricist David Yazbek’s most crowd-pleasing numbers: “Something Different.”
The 100-minute show is an adaptation of Eran Kolirin’s award-winning 2007 film about a band of Egyptian musicians who are, to their surprise, warmly welcomed by the residents of Bet Hatikhva, the sleepy Israeli town in which they’ve accidentally ended up. It’s a fairly simple story that reveals many complex virtues, not the least of which is that it acts as a potent reminder of how all people, regardless of race or religion, must deal with the same fundamental issues of wanting love and acceptance. Itamar Moses’ book is smart and funny, not to mention remarkably topical.
These universal inner yearnings are most deeply felt by the band’s leader, Tewfig (a beautifully understated Tony Shalhoub), an overly formal, stoic, genteel widower afraid to love again after the death of his wife, and spirited Israeli café owner Dina (a sensational Katrina Lenk), long abandoned by her husband and desperate to reignite a true human connection. (Her periodic rendezvous with hotheaded married lover Sammy, excellently rendered by Jonathan Raviv, clearly aren’t satisfying her deeper urges.)
Indeed, nowhere is Dina’s longing for a rekindling of romance more evident than when she sings the haunting ballad “Omar Sharif,” a reverie of her classic memories of Egyptian films that works spectacularly as both inner monologue and an outward attempt to seduce the stone-willed Tewfig. It’s just one example of how Yazbek cleverly relies on everything from Middle Eastern-inspired music to all-American jazz to reinforce the show’s themes.
In fact, practically all the characters we meet are desperate for some kind of honest human connection, even handsome, womanizing musician Haled (a very fine Ar’Tel Stachel), whom we eventually discover is dreading his soon-to-happen arranged marriage. Or take troubled young Israeli couple Itzik (the hangdog John Cariani) and Iris (an evocative Kristen Sieh), whose marriage is in jeopardy mostly for lack of communication, or the character identified as “Telephone Guy” (Adam Kantor, doing a lot with a small role), who waits nightly by the town’s only pay phone for his girlfriend to call.
Perhaps the character who touches our hearts the most is the virginal Papi (a superb Etai Benson), whose fear of reaching out, both literally and physically, to shy local girl Julia (Rachel Prather) is wonderfully expressed by the comic “Papi Hears the Ocean.” Fortunately, he connects with her – and himself – after some urging from Haled, who croons the gorgeous “Haled’s Song About Love,” one of Yazbek’s finest creations.
Given the delicate nature of the material – at times, the work feels a little weightless – David Cromer’s savvy, unfussy direction is the right choice, as it lets the work’s emotions creep on us. He is aided by his first-rate creative team, including scenic designer Scott Pask, who makes excellent use of a turntable set to create numerous locations within the town, costume designer Sarah Laux, and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau. And one must mention the essential group of on-stage musicians who often fill the script’s silences with their extraordinary instrumental interludes.
As winter approaches New York, a trip to the warm desert probably sounds appealing. Fortunately, The Band’s Visit is no mirage, but an oasis in the sea for theatergoers tired of lavishly produced musicals. Of course, whether this piece will be a little too different for the traditional tourist-centric, spectacle-loving audience remains to be seen.