In the online edition of today’s Wall Street Journal, I review a new off-Broadway musical, the stage version of The Band’s Visit. Here’s an excerpt.
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As delightful as well-done big-budget musicals can be, I’m certain that the future of the musical as an art form lies in the stripped-down style of small-scale production pioneered by John Doyle in his landmark revival of “Sweeney Todd.” Not only does it force directors and designers to use their imaginations in fresh, unexpected ways, but it also allows great shows to be done by theaters in which you’d never expect to see a musical. Nor need they be trusty, musty old standbys: The Broadway transfer of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which opened this week and already looks set to become a smash, proved yet again that bigger has nothing to do with better. Likewise the Atlantic Theater Company’s off-Broadway premiere of “The Band’s Visit,” a huge-hearted small-scale musical directed by David Cromer that has warmth and charm to burn.
Adapted for the stage by Itamar Moses (“Nobody Loves You”) and David Yazbek (“The Full Monty”) from Eran Kolirin’s 2007 Israeli film, “The Band’s Visit” is a tender comedy of international manners that is cleverly disguised as a farce. The protagonists are the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, who have come to Israel from their home in Egypt to perform at the opening of a new Arab cultural center in the city of Petah Tikva. But there is no “p” in Arabic, and most Egyptians therefore unconsciously replace that consonant with “b” when speaking English. As a result, the musicians, unable to pronounce the name of their destination in a way that is fully intelligible to Israelis, instead end up in Beit Hatikva, a tiny town somewhere in the middle of the Negev Desert. It’s the Middle Eastern counterpart of…well, perhaps we might emulate the Egyptian musicians and call it “Bodunk.”
If that sounds like a sitcom plot, you’re right. But here as in the film, the underlying comic situation serves as a pretext for a subtle exercise in group storytelling in which we watch the members of the orchestra interact with the citizens of Beit Hatikva. To be sure, plenty of preposterous things happen along the way, many of which arise from the fact that the characters speak English, not Arabic or Hebrew, to one another. Some speak it better than others, but none is quite fluent, thus leading to all kinds of comic complications. I especially liked the jazz-loving trumpeter (Ari’el Stachel) whose standard pickup line is to ask women whether they like the music of “Shit Baker,” after which he sings them a few bars of (what else?) “My Funny Valentine.” But it also makes for complications that are more touching than funny, above all when Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub), the stiffly inhibited widower who leads the band, and Dina (Katrina Lenk), the lonely café owner who offers to put the hapless musicians up for the night, realize that they are attracted to one another….
As this plot twist indicates, “The Band’s Visit” is an “of course” show: Of course Tewfiq and Dina fall in love (though there is nothing at all obvious about what happens next). Of course there is a brief moment of tension when an over-zealous Israeli soldier regards the Egyptian musicians with glowering suspicion. Of course the moment passes without incident, and everybody ends up getting along so well that you can all but hear Ernest Hemingway muttering “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” in the distance. But even if “The Band’s Visit” is a fairy tale, it is one so disarmingly open-hearted that you won’t hesitate to buy into it….
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Read the whole thing here.
The theatrical trailer for the original film version of The Band’s Visit: