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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Band's Visit - It Wasn't Important?

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalboub, photo @ Sara Krulwich
The Band's Visit, an off-Broadway musical that is now in previews on Broadway, begins and ends with the statement that an Egyptian banded visited the Israeli town of Bet Hatikva, but no one knows about it, because "it wasn't very important." Those words are meant ironically, as obviously, the whole musical is about the visit. But at the end of last evening's performance it also crossed my mind that, well, uh, it wasn't important. I admired many things about David Yazbek and Itamar Moses's adaptation of the 2007 film, but ultimately I didn't really care about the characters. The music (a charming mix of pseudo-Middle-Eastern pop and folk music) didn't really grab me. It was charming, it was pleasant, but, yeah, it wasn't important.


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
There are some wonderful things about this musical. Katrina Lenk deserves praise for her beautiful voice as well as her characterization of Dina. She's the exact dreamy/jaded heroine musicals love, and "Omar Sharif" is a beautiful I Want song. Tony Shalhoub also is wonderful as Tewfiq, the conductor of the band. He forms a bond with Dina throughout the night that becomes the heart of the story (although Dina does something that I won't spoil which IMO sort of cheapens this storyline arc). There's other charming moments, like the band's clarinetist serenading a crying baby to sleep, a fun scene at a roller rink, and the final number "Answer Me," a sort of primal scream of loneliness. But since there was little build-up to that cathartic number, it seems out of place. Like an 11 o'clock number where nothing happened at 10 o'clock.

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":


2 comments:

  1. I saw the show today and agree with most of your well written review. I believe the potential universality of music to bring diverse people together is the most potent element this show displays in very understated ways. The final and only real full cast musical number was wonderful but just to short to fully grab the audience a reprise would have been welcome.

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    1. I agree that "Answer Me" had too little build-up. A powerful tune but it could have had more emotional payout. I also as I mentioned loved the band's post curtain call "encore." But many of the musical numbers had great tunes that weren't developed. "It Is What It Is" had several catchy melodies for Dina but each one meandered without development.

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