An interview with Harold Prince in last week’s The Guardian trumpeted the legendary director/producer’s exhortation that “musicals should be dangerous.” He was, of course, not being literal—no mention here of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Prince was speaking metaphorically about musicals that defy audience expectations and work out-of-the-box.
Another show Prince didn’t mention is The Band’s Visit (music by David Yazbek, book by Itamar Moses, directed by David Cromer). But I’d like to think that it’s the kind of show he’d celebrate—one that banishes clichés and predictable structures in favor of something looser, more grown-up, and exceptionally moving.
Yet “dangerous” is not quite the right descriptor for an evening that works its magic slowly, ineffably, and often in miniature. The Band’s Visit announces itself with becoming modesty, in a legend projected on the screen and repeated at the show’s end by the leading lady:
Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel, from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.
Indeed, that’s The Band’s Visit (which is based on a film) in a nutshell. The visit begins with a linguistic misunderstanding that brings the group—who had been scheduled to perform in a large cultural center—to a tiny town with virtually no culture to speak of, where they are met with wary, incredulous eyes. Dina (the mysterious, complex, gorgeously exotic Katrina Lenk, in a star-making performance), who works at a local restaurant, takes pity on them, and helps arrange short-term accommodations while they figure things out. She also grows close to the band’s leader, a somber, handsome Egyptian named Tewfiq (a finely calibrated performance by Dariush Kashani in the role originated by Tony Shalhoub).
Reading this, you might perhaps be wary; when friends described it, I was. The premise isn’t far removed from a rom-com meet-cute set-up. I also feared that The Band’s Visit would be too much a wish-fulfillment fantasy about cultural understanding. And—full disclosure—there’s some truth to both those things, and I wasn’t immediately won over by the first scenes.
But it didn’t take long. The beauty of The Band’s Visit is in the details, most especially small character portraits that the cast and Cromer draw with such rich detail that even a seemingly casual encounter is memorable. It’s some indication of the acting level that I can imagine at least four members of the ensemble—Ari’el Stachel, Andrew Polk, Adam Kantor, and John Cariani—receiving Tony nominations for supporting actor in a musical. (My money is on the flirtatious, adorably sexy Stachel to walk off with it, but the competition is fierce.)
There’s beauty, too, in the sophisticated, very adult storytelling, which eschews heavy plotting in favor of underscoring emotional textures in small conversations. Spoiler alert: there will be no large-scale wrap-up at the conclusion of The Band’s Visit. And that is just as it should be.
Another spoiler alert: if you’re waiting for a power ballad that marks a triumphant transformation, you’ll be waiting forever. Yazbek’s score, tinged with irresistible Middle-Eastern sonorities and colors, works mostly in fragmentary melodic narratives laced in unexpected ways through Moses’s equally compelling book. One number more or less stands alone—Dina’s haunting “Omar Sharif,” a smoky ballad where she muses on romance from afar. For the most part, though, it’s the band itself, in extended instrumental passages, which provide the musical spine of the show. In a very classy gesture, they are accorded the final curtain call to themselves. It’s a gesture that is all of a piece with The Band’s Visit’s quietly appropriate sense of emphasis.
But don’t take my word for it. I urge you to judge the show for yourselves, and if at all possible, see it on Broadway, and soon—the miraculous rightness may prove difficult to duplicate on tour.
Wasn’t it Mother Teresa, whose motto was “Do small things with great love”? Unlike Harold Prince, I doubt she was talking about musical theater, but her famous quote certainly describes The Band’s Visit. As it turns out, a small thing done with great love is quite a large thing.
The Band’s Visit is in an open-ended run at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre. For more information, visit the show’s website.