|Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalboub, photo @ Sara Krulwich|
The story is simple, and actually a well-worn trope in musical theater: the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band accidentally are sent to the wrong town in Israel when there is a misunderstanding between Bet Hatikva and Petah Tikva. So for one night they are stranded in a sleepy Israeli village where people introduce themselves with the song "Welcome to Nowhere." Of course, before the night is out, people from two different cultures find out they have more in common than they expected, and of course, the thing that unites these people is music. So Band's Visit is a musical about music. I love musicals about music bringing people together. Show Boat. The Music Man. The Sound of Music.
But in order for these sorts of musicals to work, they need to have great music. One of my favorite moments in musical theater is in Show Boat when Magnolia desperately auditions for a nightclub singing the song Julie taught her as a child. The song is rudely dismissed. Magnolia bristles: "That's the most beautiful song in the world. If you don't like it I'm sorry for you." Since that song is "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" we are on her side. It is a beautiful song.
David Yazbek's score has been praised to the high heavens but what I heard was a bunch of great music ideas and motifs played without being explored for the big payout. Only the jaded cafe owner Dina's (Katrina Lenk) anthem "Omar Sharif," as well as the final number "Answer Me" really develop a motif from the start to the end. But the whole evening is snippets of a great tunes here and there that are abruptly cut off. Musical coitus interruptus. It's ultimately unsatisfying. Actually the best moment of the evening was an encore after curtain calls, when the "band" plays together for the first time. It's a rousing folk theme and it gets audiences going. Why have that be after the curtain calls? Beats me.
Another problem I had were the stylistic choices. Because the Israelis and Egyptians don't have a common language they speak in English together, and the cast (bless their hearts) really tries to speak with authentic Middle-Eastern accents. However, as the evening progresses the director seems to forget that English is not the first language of these characters and the slow, stilted way they talked at first gives way to casual American slang, and characters of the same ethnicity stop speaking Arabic or Israeli to each other. A guy's an "asshole," etc. For a musical that tries to create exact verisimilitude those details matter.
|The Band, photo @ Sara Krulwich|
Ultimately I expected more from a musical that's been so praised and is being promoted as the big Tony hope. Maybe that's my problem -- the fact that I set the bar very high for musicals about music. I feel like for these sorts of musicals to work the music has to hit you in the solar plexus. You have to believe that this music is so powerful that people who don't have any reason to be in the same room together have a meeting of the mind and soul. It can't be "oh that was nice and pleasant." David Yazbek's score was nice and pleasant but that was it. It wasn't important.
ETA: here is a clip of Katrina Lenk singing "Omar Sharif":
And here is "Answer Me":