Thursday 8 March 2018

The Band's Visit

Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York
1st March, 2018

Once, not so long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt.
You probably didn’t hear about it.
It wasn’t very important.

…so go the opening and closing lines of Itamar Moses (book) and David Yazbek’s (music and lyrics) The Band’s Visit. These uncomplicated words, so forthright in their delivery, bookend the musical while, in their understated sentiment, they perfectly encapsulate the tone of director David Cromer’s production. Modest, gently comedic, with a melancholic tang of inertia, The Band’s Visit describes the seemingly inconsequential events and non-events that shape who we are.

As the above quote suggests, the musical (based on the 2007 film of the same name) recounts an Egyptian police band’s accidental visit to the miniscule Israeli town of Bet Hatikva following a mix-up at the country’s border and takes place all in the space of one night.

That’s it.
On the surface, at least.

Yet, as the evening unfolds Moses and Yazbek weave a tapestry of compassion and tenderness as the threads of the diverse characters’ lives unravel and entwine with one another. For the residents of Bet Hatikva, who have spent a lifetime on the outskirts of society, forever ‘Waiting’ as the opening cyclical number demonstrates, the band’s arrival is the most notable thing to ever happen in the village. As a place in a stasis of inadvertent torpor, so too are the characters reduced to their inability to act – from young Papi’s (Etai Benson) frozen terror at the thought of making a move on his would-be girlfriend, to the local youth that stands night and day at the only public payphone, waiting for his true love to call. And this lethargy is not restricted solely to the Israelis, perhaps the most potent (and beautiful, melodically speaking) example is clarinettist Simon’s (Alok Tewari) inability to complete the overture to his musical composition. So the arrival of the Egyptian strangers causes ripples in the still waters of Bet Hatikva, wherein the simplest of human gestures, such as the lulling of a baby to sleep so its wearied parents can finally talk, going out for a meal, or giving much-needed relationship advice, mean the world.

Most enticing of these small vignettes is the budding relationship between local café owner, Dina (Katrina Lensk), and band conductor, Tewfiq (Dariush Kashani). Dina is brash and defensive while Tewfiq is stoic and aloof, yet the two bond over their mutual fondness of the music of Uum Kulthum and Egyptian movies which Dina used to watch as a girl. Dina’s growing fondness for Tewfiq culminates in a stunning scene of intimacy in which she asks him to describe what conducting an orchestra feels like. What follows is as unique and sensuous a duet (‘Something Different’) as I can think of, the synchronisation of heartbeats is the closest comparison I can make. Truly stunning.

Without wanting to be accused of giving away too many spoilers, I think it’s safe to say that I was strongly reminded of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s Once while watching The Band’s Visit, not only in the lush use of actor/musicians, but in the muted and yearning themes of the piece and the great (artistic) satisfaction found in dissatisfaction and ‘almost, but not quites’, also.

Yazbek’s score allows the band itself to shine, comprised of a blend of actors and musicians that gel together in rhythmic fashion. On top of the highly-deserved standing ovation during the curtain call I was delighted that the band got its own separate moment in the limelight as each musician showed their musical flare in barn-storming style! Stand out songs include the aforementioned ‘Waiting’ and ‘Something Different’ along with ‘Omar Sharif’ a lovely ode to the unifying nature of the arts, and ‘Answer Me’ in which the entire ensemble of characters come together to express their hopes and expectations.

Katrina Lenk is a revelation as Dina, portraying her abrasiveness and underlying fragility with gutsy swagger, while her husky voice exposes her aching for change. Counterbalancing Lenk wonderfully, Dariush Kashani lends Tewfiq a stillness that suggests inner depths yet to be explored. Kashani’s is an assured portrayal which is even more impressive considering this was his first performance in the show. Also impressive is Ari’el Satchel as the happy-go-lucky Haled, who, despite an arranged marriage awaiting him back in Egypt, never misses an opportunity to try out his favourite chat-up line, ‘So, do you like Chet Baker?’ on any passing woman. It’s perhaps the most overtly comedic role and it is to Satchel’s credit that what could have become a Joey Tribbiani-esque caricature is instead imbued with a warmth and naivety which endears him to both the locals and the audience. Finally, as the lugubrious Camal, cigarette permanently hanging, mournful, from his lip, George Abud steals virtually every scene he’s in with barely a line of dialogue. His stealth and moroseness is transformed the second he picks up the violin which he plays with virtuoso skill.

Played straight through with no interval, The Band’s Visit is a fleeting but searing musical which encompasses the cravings, losses, hopes, mistakes, hits and misses of the human experience. Yazbek and Moses have beautifully and succinctly crafted a piece which never outstays its welcome and manages to say in a mere one and a half hours what many try to achieve in years of musings and toil. While it may be overlooked in favour of the flashier shows currently playing in New York, this small, intimate and unassuming musical outshines even the brightest lights on Broadway.

The Band’s Visit is currently booking at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York, until 2nd September 2018.

The cast (Ari’el Stachel, David Garo Yellin, George Abud, Tony Shaloub, Harvey Valdes, Sam Sadigursky and Alok Tewari) of The Band's Visit. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.

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