Not much happens in The Band's Visit, the Broadway musical adaptation of Eran Kolirin’s 2007 Israeli film. The opening words, “It wasn’t very important,” only tells you the surface level about what transpires. Through its subdued drama and soft-hitting comedy, its magic is transcendent.
An Egyptian music band waits at an Israel bus ticket booth, looking quite out of place in their crisp blue uniforms. A phonetic misunderstanding at the ticket booth causes their journey to take a detour into the middle-of-nowhere fictional city, Bet Hatikva, instead of their intended destination, the cultured Petah Tikva. As “Welcome To Nowhere” exposits, Bet Hatikva has no real business other than to exist as a “cement on the spot in the desert,” as the resident cafe owner Dina puts it. Since the musicians are stranded for the night, the cafe owner and the locals house and feed the musicians before they take off to their concert.
Singing up a spell that earned her a Tony Award for Best Actress, Katrina Lenk perfectly embodies a sardonic Dina, self-deprecating about her past love life yet can’t admit that she’s still a romantic dreamer. She accosts Tewfiq (Dariush Kashani at my performance), the humorless band leader, out into the night. It’s evident she’s trying to will a spark between herself and a stranger to seize the opportunity to live a mysterious romantic fantasy. Tewfiq plays along with skepticism before their dialogue melts his stoicism enough for him to warm up.
Their interaction radiates much of the magic of this musical. They complement each other, two lonely souls who aren’t sure how to connect. Because he cannot describe conducting in words, he mimes the motion of conducting, she copies him, as imagined music swells around them. For Tewfiq’s prominence as a main character, it is easy to miss that he only has one number to himself, imbuing his character with mystique as he sings his own lyrics in "Itgara’a,” a capella. Dina does not understand his Arabic lyrics but she can decipher its beauty all the same and accepts the mystery of his—and her own—feelings, as their momentary duet “Something Different” allows his lonesome lyrics instrumental accompaniment.
Supporting players engage in their own dialogue and misadventures with the residents. One band member (Alok Tewari) plays an unfinished sonata to his hosts. He seems resigned and ashamed that his work never amounted to renown but his unfinished music serves another purpose in defusing conflict between a couple. Another member (Ari'el Stachel) coaches an awkward resident to reconcile with his crush after a roller-skating mishap. Despite incremental tensions here and there, no plot-altering havoc threatens the relative serenity.
Indeed, David Yazbek’s music and lyrics are swaying with touches of playfulness in the strings. But I remembered the quiet more than the lyrics because this is a story where words fall short in illuminating emotions. Most memorably, deep in his exchange with Dina, Tewfiq betrays a taciturn distress that only the audience sees, precluding a reveal about a past guilt.
Even if I were to spoil the sweet and simple outcomes, the musical plucks at all the right notes to elevate modest payoffs into poignancy. In the ensemble signature number “Answer Me,” an outcome involving a solitary man at the telephone booth caps off the themes of connection. This musical is about the longing for something big, when the little that happens, be it small-talk, a song, or an unfinished concerto, is more than enough to bridge the chasm of loneliness. The Band’s Visit is audacious as a large production in how little happens yet every mite feels grand.
The Band's Visit will close on Broadway on April 7th before going on tour. For musical-goers, I hope the tour will allow a wider audience to experience a musical different than they have seen before on a large stage.
The Band's Visit is currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York NY.