By Karen Isaacs
It’s generated buzz since its debut off-Broadway last fall. Now The Band’s Visit has made it to Broadway and it lives up to all of the hype.
It is a warm story about people learning about themselves and about people they have viewed as very different from them.
The show, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, is based on the 2007 Israeli film that won acclaim and prizes throughout the world. The film told the story of the eight member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra that has been invited to play at the opening of an Arab cultural center in PetahTikva. Due to a language mix up (it isn’t important to understand the how) the group arrives at Beit Harikva in the Negev Desert.
In this small “no wheresville” town, there are no hotels, but a few of the residents take the band members in and provide food, shelter and companionship for one night. Bonds of friendship are formed in the few hours before the band departs on a bus to take them to their correct location.
It’s a gentle story. Yes, there is an occasional brief instances of prejudice by one or two townspeople, but other than that, the dramatic conflict is minimal.
This musical is more about people getting to know each other, than about disagreements and conflict.
Director David Cromer must be given credit for not trying to make this piece more “Broadway” then it should be. He moves the scenes along without rushing them and allows the audience to involve themselves in the characters and the story.
Each of the characters is finely drawn and beautifully performed. Tony Shalhoub plays Tewfiq, the very proper leader of the group. Though he only has one number, “Something Different” which is a duet with Dina, his performance is the backbone of this piece. It’s all in his reserve, his posture, his gestures – it is he who sets the tone and acts as the parent to the others in the orchestra.
If he is the backbone, then Dina, played by Katrina Lenk is the soul of the play. Dina is the owner of the café where the band comes to ask for directions. It is she who organizes the food and accommodations for the night. She is the leader among her group of friends. Lenk, who was brilliant in Indecent last year, is equally brilliant here. She conveys her concern for fellow humans in every way. It is she who sets the tone with the songs, “Welcome to Nowhere” and “It Is What It Is.” And it is she that that breaks through the reserve of Tewfiq.
While many of the other characters begin as “types” – they soon emerge as much more than that type. John Cariani as Itzik begins as the “man-child” who is abdicating responsibility for his wife and child, but by the end has gained new ambition. Haled, played by Ari’el Stachel is the lothario in the band, but he too becomes much more than that as he spends the evening wondering the town with Papi, played equally well by Etai Benson. Even though some of the band members have few lines, they still create unique characters.
Each of the characters have known loss and disappointment. From the band member who started a concerto only to stop after the first few bars, to the young man who sits waiting for an out-of-service phone (in a phone booth) to ring.
These characters are separated by language, distance, nationality, religion and sometimes politics though that is not the focus on the piece. Yet they forge human connections and learn about each other while discovering things about themselves.
It is difficult to say too much about the magnificent music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Once again, he has adapted to his environment. This score pulls from the tonal palate of both Arabic and Jewish music while still being totally accessible to American audiences. I can’t wait for the cast CD to be released.
Itamar Moses’ book is smooth and handles the transitions and changes in mood adeptly. It is not obvious but it is important.
Scott Pask has created a turntable set that allows for the multiple locations – the café, the street, Itzik’s home, Dina’s apartment, and more. The set combined with the lighting design by Tyler Micoleau and the costumes by Sarah Laux, immerse in the small town evening/night. Her costumes for the band makes a statement all by themselves. They are humorous, self-important, and yet with their powder blue color, non-threatening. This may be a police orchestra, but you can’t imagine any of them actually being police officers.
The Band’s Visit is a musical that will captivate many. It is gentle, romantic, wistful and regretful. Those who want high energy dancing, chorus numbers and more in their musicals, will be disappointed unless they are willing to accept the quiet depth of this piece.
In some ways it reminds me of Come from Away last year’s surprise hit. Both deal with ensemble casts, both feature the band as much as the singers, both leave us feeling hopeful and optimistic about people. They are different, but they are also both excellent.
A Band’s Visit is a tender, thoughtful musical that is so very worth seeing. It is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street, Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
For those who thought Spamalot and The Book of Mormon were too refined and “high culture,” Something Rotten! will be just the musical for you. For the rest of us, how we react may depend on how many drinks we have had before entering the theater.
Certainly the performances are wonderful, but those who prefer more sophisticated comedy will sometimes wonder why some of the audience is having such a hilarious time.
The concept by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick is to imagine a playwright in Elizabethan England tired of competing against Shakespeare. Nick Bottom is fed up with the adulation of Shakespeare; he can’t get his plays produced. He seeks out a seer — a relative of the great Nostradamus who tells him about this 20th century phenomena of the “musical.” Nick convinces his brother Nigel, who is a Shakespeare “groupie” to write a musical with the help of Thomas Nostradamus giving them plot details which borrow heavily from plays we now recognize as Shakespeare’s though often wildly misinterpreted. Unfortunately Thomas often doesn’t quite get it right.
All sorts of complications and ruses and some slapstick ensue. Including their first musical attempt about the black death and their second called “Omelette” which is Nostradamus’ vision of the Danish play.
But what this show is really about is sending up the Broadway musical, Shakespeare and rock stars –for that is how Shakespeare is portrayed.
If the plot is not that important to the show — do not expect logic or order — what is? It isn’t really the music and lyrics (by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick). They provide the audience with a pastiche of musical genres from rap to everything else and the rhymes could have been written by a talented 10th grader. Sophistication is not their forte.
In fact the entire thing seems like a joke or a spoof put on by Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club. From the deliberately cheesy Elizabethan sets by Scott Pask to the costumes by Gregg Barnes to the lighting by Jeff Croiter. You can get the idea just by the names of the two main characters “Bottom” and by the title of the musical “Omelete.”
The emphasis is on single and double entendres, jokes about sex and sexual organs, and references to Broadway shows that makes Forbidden Broadway seem sophisticated. You can count how many jokes are made about Nick and Nigel’s last name.
Casey Nicholaw, best known for The Book of Mormon, both directs and choreographs. He keeps things moving which does prevent anyone from thinking too much about what they are seeing.
The best thing about the show is the performances. Christian Borle gives us an over-the-top imitation of an egotistical rock star in his portrayal of Shakespeare. Brian d’Arcy James plays the older brother with more seriousness than the part deserves; James is too talented to be wasted in this. John Cariani plays Nigel who adores all things Shakespeare. His is the most realistic and likeable character; he does not over do it. Brad Oscar as Thomas Nostradamus, gives a delightful performance and Heidi Blickenstaff has the somewhat thankless role as Bea, Nick’s wife.
As to the music — you will not leave the theater humming any of the songs. The opening number “Welcome to the Renaissance” goes on much too long as do several others. Perhaps the funniest is “God, I Hate Shakespeare.”
Something Rotten! will for some be brilliant and hilarious and for others — myself among them — tedious and sophomoric. Maybe it is a generational thing, or perhaps some of us like more sophistication and wit in theatrical experiences.
Something Rotten! is at the St. James Theater on W. 44th St. Tickets are available through Telecharge.