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The Band’s Visit is a new Broadway show that doesn’t play by the rules of musical theater. Fresh off a critically acclaimed off-Broadway run—where it snagged Obie, Drama Critics’ Circle and Outer Critics Circle awards—the tender-hearted musical is now open on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. After reading stellar reviews left and right, The Knick team went to see for itself what made it the New York Times‘s favorite new musical. Here’s why The Band’s Visit, the so-called anti-musical, swept us off our feet.
The Band’s Visit focuses on an Egyptian military band invited to Israeli city Petah Tikva, where they’re set to perform at the opening of an Arabic cultural center. Unfortunately, the band winds up in tiny Bet Hatikva—”with a B, like in bland. Like in basically bleak and beige and blah blah blah.” So sings Dina (played by Katrina Lenk), a café owner who becomes our primary guide to the town where nothing happens. She helps the unexpected visitors find lodging for the night in several apartments—there are no hotels in Bet Hatikva. Clarinetist Simon (Alok Tewari) winds up with a young married couple living with the wife’s father. And in her own home, Dina welcomes trumpeter Haled (Ari’el Stachel) and the band’s sweet-spoken general Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub, whom you know from Monk). Over the course of one evening—and only one act—the Egyptian bandmates and their Israeli hosts get to know each other through conversations in broken English, and of course, music.
The theme of the night is longing at The Band’s Visit: longing for lost loves, for inspiration, for something to do. David Yazbek’s pleading Middle East-influenced score offers the perfect vehicle for the cast to sing out their desires. One highlight is “Omar Sharif,” in which Dina sings of her childhood afternoons, when Egyptian films “came floating in on a Jasmine wind, from the west to the south…honey in my ears, spice in my mouth.” In another audience favorite, “Haled’s Song About Love,” the jazz- and woman-loving band trumpeter coaches one of his Israeli hosts (sweet, tongue-tied Etai Benson) the art of seduction. Most haunting may be an unfinished concerto overture from Simon, the clarinetist, who has yet to discover how it should end.
Unlike most Broadway musicals, The Band’s Visit reins in most of its energy. No big numbers, no chorus dances. You can actually hear crickets. Everything—from the staging to the acting to the music—is a beautiful lesson of restraint. You may not walk away humming many songs (we didn’t…although a forthcoming cast album will make it easier to re-listen to your favorite melodies), but you will leave feeling like you’ve witnessed a magical moment in a small town’s quiet history.