Sunday, 18 December 2016

THE BAND'S VISIT at the Atlantic Theater Company

     THE BAND'S VISIT is a charming, intimate play with music, but I couldn't help feeling the it would have been even better with more music and a stronger sense of continuity from the director, David Cromer.
      The story is a simple one. A group of Egyptian musicians hired to play at the opening of a Pan-Arabian Cultural Center in an Israeli city, Petah Tikva, get the name wrong and end up in tiny village of Bet Hatikva. With no bus until the next day, the musicians are hosted by the lonely, forlorn villagers who are delighted at any break from their routine. In good American musical theater style, the villagers are changed for the better by this brief alien invasion. A young man gets over his shyness around women with the help of an Egyptian trumpet player. The clarinetist helps heal the rift between a young married couple. The forlorn conductor (Tony Shaloub, the master at playing forlorn characters), is able briefly to lift the cynicism of the town's female innkeeper. Music heals. In this case, it heals loneliness. Yet THE BAND'S VISIT is skimpy on music. The conceit seems to be that the residents of the village don't have music in their lives until the musicians arrive. Still, I kept thinking, "This is a musical. Why are these people talking so much?" Most of the songs go to one character, the lonely innkeeper, Dina (Katrina Lenk). Music could also have provided more continuity between scenes. Even though the show is played on a revolve, the show has too much of a sense of stop and start. It could flow better. Cromer did bring a sense of depth and authenticity to the characters but he seemed more interested in the book scenes than in the musical numbers. I did like the way he used every inch of the stage space.
     The conceit of the production is that some of the Egyptian band members are also the instrumentalists for the musical numbers. They wander onto the stage as needed to accompany songs. Indeed, one of the high points of the show is the moment after the curtain call when the Egyptian band finally plays together. The audience loves it, but I wondered why that moment couldn't have been integrated into the final scene of the show. David Yazbek has never been my favorite Broadway composer, but his songs for this show, often with an Arab or Israeli inflection, are solid and his lyrics witty and often eloquent. Itamar Moses has written some lovely short scenes.
     Even with its flaws, I found THE BAND'S VISIT thoroughly enjoyable greatly because of its excellent cast. Tony Shaloub is always enjoyable and he is surrounded by a superb ensemble. I was particularly impressed by Daniel David Stewart as the shy young man and Ari'el Stachel as the Egyptian Lothario who teaches him courtship. John Cariani is affecting as the sweet but feckless husband. We've seen Dina's character in many musicals--the lonely woman who takes affection where she can find it--but Katrina Lenk makes the most of the songs she is given.
     THE BAND'S VISIT is a sellout hit at the Atlantic and there is talk of a Broadway transfer. Will it lose its sweetness in a big Broadway house?

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