There’s an unusual sight onstage at the Atlantic Theater Company: An actor eats Bamba, that ubiquitous Israeli peanut butter snack, during the opening number of a musical, which signals a level of Jewishness right off the bat. Sure, Jewish characters appear onstage in American shows all the time (you can go see a whole slew of them in Falsettos on Broadway right now), but one of Off-Broadway’s latest musical, The Band’s Visit, features not only the Hebrew and Arabic languages, but it also takes place in Israel. While not totally unheard of, it’s still a rarity.
The Band’s Visit, which just opened at the Atlantic in New York City, is set in 1997 and is based off of the award-winning 2007 Israeli film of the same name (which starred the late, great Ronit Elkabetz). The musical tells the same story as the film: The Alexandria Police Force’s ceremonial orchestra is sent to Israel to perform in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikvah. Instead, the orchestra winds up in the (fictional) Beit HaTikvah, a podunk Negev town that describes itself as having zero culture altogether, let alone an Arabic one. And so, the band has to spend the night in the village until the next bus arrives, so they stay at the homes of various Israeli families. (And the characters’ only common language? English. How convenient for an American audience!) Of course, bonding ensues, and each Egyptian gains insight into the life of an Israeli, and vice versa.
The musical is an ensemble piece, but arguably stars Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk as the band’s leader and conductor respectively, and an Israeli woman who finds herself attracted to an older gentleman. (What, you thought no star-crossed romance?) The actors lead a fine cast that includes theater actors you should have heard of, even if you haven’t yet. (He doesn’t do much in this, but keep your eye on George Abud.)
There’s an overused trope in culture about people from clashing cultures uniting in small, human moments, and finding that commonalities (like music) bind us all together. Perhaps it’s wisest, therefore, that this musical avoids explicit discussion of why the Israelis and Egyptians may be uncomfortable with one another—a staring restaurant patron here, an overeager security guard there, take the place of a shouted argument of Egypt and Israel’s not-always-friendly history (this musical takes place less than 20 years after the two nations made peace). Still, completely ignoring the specifics of why Israelis and Egyptians would feel uncomfortable near one another comes off as a bit naïve. Sometimes, you need to acknowledge those very real factors for why we all just can’t get along, especially for a show playing in a country where not everyone is well-briefed on Middle Eastern politics).
In addition, a show that wants to explore the rich inner lives of so many characters is bound to be more effective with some than others. With at least three major different plot threads, each with several distinct characters, the relatively short play is stretched thin and certain stories are more rewarding than others. (Although, I would hazard a guess that different audience members would disagree on which ones are best.) For instance, the storyline of the band’s notorious flirt helping an awkward Israeli boy have a successful date at a roller disco is highly entertaining but still makes the stakes feel real. But a plot with an Israeli couple whose marriage is struggling—they have a baby, she’s overworked, he’s between jobs, she accuses him of being a man-child—expects us to accept a pre-existing dynamic. They keep bemoaning that all they do anymore is fight, but without knowing much more about either of them, their angst doesn’t seem earned. That story instead has the feeling of when you’re stuck with a couple who’s on the rocks and you’re desperately seeking an exit. But then again, I’m still in my twenties and haven’t been through ups and downs in a marriage yet.
Also, while films are ripe material for musicals these days, there’s a delicate tightrope to walk making a show engaging onstage while still preserving that slow, beautiful, intimate feeling of an indie film like The Band’s Visit. This play did an admirable job, better than most, but one side effect is that a lot of the songs are ballads, or something adjacent. Still, songwriter David Yazbek is in fine form, weaving Middle Eastern music into the score. Seeing Bamba onstage is exciting, sure, but what’s even better is hearing an oud.
Yazbek is perhaps the perfect composer/lyricist for the show, being of both Jewish and Arabic (Lebanese) descent. (The book writer Itamar Moses is the American child of Israelis.) Yazbek is often an underrated songwriter, so The Band’s Visit is a good notch to have in his belt. I would listen to the cast recording in a heartbeat. Yazbek is not the only Lebanese-American involved with the show; Tony Shalhoub is as well, as is at least one other actor playing an Egyptian in this musical. The Israeli ensemble includes John Cariani, the Italian-American actor who’s so typecast as Jews that he’s Tony-nominated for playing Motel in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. There’s a lesson somewhere here, but I can’t figure out what it is.
Anyway, did you know you want to hear Shalhoub sing in Arabic? You do now. And then you want to hear some dialogue in Hebrew. And then you really want to hear the curtain call, which is an onstage jam that feels far too short. In this day and age, if a show’s greatest crime is being too earnest, and making you leave the theater feeling good, it’s doing fine.
The Band’s Visit plays the Linda Gross Theater through January 1.
Gabriela Geselowitz is a writer and the former editor of Jewcy.com.