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© Matthew Murphy
© Matthew Murphy

Theater: An Israeli Welcome for Egyptians in the Modest but Marvelous 'The Band's Visit'

Picture of Bill Stevenson
Updated: 22 November 2017

There are no lavish production numbers in David Yazbeck’s Middle Eastern musical, but it’s still wonderful.

Musicals don’t generally aim to be understated. The expectation is that extravagance is necessary to make a musical a crowd-pleaser. Well, The Band’s Visit, currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, is understated, subtle, small-scale, not for kids, and doesn’t feature any rousing production numbers with dancing. Nonetheless it’s funny, touching, engaging, and a real winner.

Nowheresville

Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, the show follows an Egyptian police band that ends up in the wrong town in Israel without a place to stay. The members meant to go to Petah Tikvah to perform at a cultural center. Instead they find themselves in Beit Hatikva, a sleepy town where the locals are bored stiff. “Welcome to Nowhere,” they sing in amusingly blasé fashion.

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The Egyptian band arrives in Beit Hatikva in The Band’s Visit | © Matthew Murphy

The most bored and blasé of all is Dina (Katrina Lenk), proprietor of a café. After getting to know the Egyptian musicians a bit, she and the others invite them into their homes.

At this point you might be reminded of Come From Away, the small-scale musical about Newfoundlanders opening their homes on 9/11. The comparison goes only so far. For one thing, the small-town Israeli setting is quite different. Also, David Yazbek’s lovely music and lyrics bear a strong Middle Eastern influence. The score is thousands of miles away from his jaunty musicals The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

For the love of Omar Sharif

There isn’t a lot of plot in The Band’s Visit, but the show does feature compelling characters. The main one besides Dina is Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub), an Egyptian colonel who is in charge of the band. He and Dina go out on the town, such as it is, and bond over their shared love of Omar Sharif movies. Dina even sings a pretty song about the handsome movie star. She likes Tewfiq’s snazzy outfit, which she calls “a Sergeant Pepper suit.” Effortlessly sexy, Lenk (Indecent) expresses longing and wistfulness every time she sings. Her performance is perfect.

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Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk in The Band’s Visit | © Matthew Murphy

Among the town’s funny-sad residents are Itzik (John Cariani), a husband and father who is “between jobs,” and the Telephone Guy (Adam Kantor), a sheepish young man who waits and waits by a payphone for his long-distance girlfriend to call. The payoff is the beautiful song “Answer Me,” performed by the yearning Telephone Guy and the rest of the cast near the end of this enchanting, bittersweet musical.

Concert bonus

One of my few complaints is that The Band’s Visit lasts only about 95 minutes, without intermission. When it ended I was rather sad that it was over. (The feeling is a nice change from frustration with plays and musicals that overstay their welcome.) Fortunately, the band plays a short, lively concert after the curtain calls, prolonging the show for a bit.

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Rachel Prather, Etai Benson, and Ari’el Stachel in The Band’s Visit | © Matthew Murphy

There is no orchestra per se. Instead most of the actors double as musicians, and the instruments are the kind you would hear in Israel. The songs all flow naturally from the dialogue.

Roller disco comedy

Itamar Moses’ book is a skillful adaptation of Eran Kolirin’s screenplay. Last year David Cromer directed the musical Off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater, where it earned rave reviews. Now he works his magic on a larger Broadway stage. He makes particularly clever use of a turntable—a device that can be overused but which Cromer employs just enough. In a scene set at the local roller disco, the turntable and the wonderful actors deliver the show’s biggest laughs. Scott Pask designed the efficient set.

One might expect a musical about Egyptians stuck in Israel to hit you over the head with politics. The Band’s Visit doesn’t need to. It simply gives voice to ordinary people from different countries yearning for connection. It’s both timely and timeless. I hope it will cast its spell on audiences for years to come.

The Band’s Visit is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street. Get tickets here.