THE BAND’S VISIT
December 8, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
One year ago tonight, The Band’s Visit opened at the Atlantic Theatre Company’s Linda Gross Theatre on West 20th Street. The musical, based on the screenplay by Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film of the same name, features a book by Itamar Moses and a score by David Yazbeck. Directed by David Cromer, rave reviews made it a difficult ticket to score, especially as the Gross is a small playhouse and the Atlantic has a well-attended subscription audience. But when a two-week extension was announced, I quickly obtained two tickets for the last performance on January 8th, and was rewarded with a truly memorable theatre experience; one I felt necessary to duplicate a year later when I saw it again. This time it was during its preview period on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (a full 897 seats larger than the 199 seat Chelsea performing space). Not at all to my surprise, the show stayed true to its intimate self and was equally as moving.
So what sort of musical is The Band’s Visit and why has it had such a positive effect on audiences and critics? Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times, in a follow-up piece published yesterday in that paper (nearly a month after he wrote his opening night review), is correct when he claims: “More compact than Fun Home, Hamilton and Great Comet, this 90-minute show is every bit as resonant and original.” And that is because even though it tells a very narrow story, and nothing much happens, EVERYTHING happens. It’s a musical Chekhov play. You ache for the characters in The Band’s Visit the same as you do in The Seagull or Uncle Vanya, with its men and women possessed of strengths and weaknesses by which they define themselves, sometimes in the reverse of their best intentions.
The small Egyptian military band, stranded in an Israeli town they arrived at my mistake, are not extraordinary men. Nor do they find themselves in an extraordinary situation. What the townspeople do by offering them shelter for one night isn’t extraordinary either. What IS extraordinary is how deeply Moses, Yazbeck and Cromer make you feel for everyone, the guests as well as their hosts, and the concern for how all their lives will progress once everyone moves on after their sole evening’s interactions. It’s not a dissimilar situation to the one depicted at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre two blocks south, in the musical Come From Away. That drama unfolds with a multiplicity of characters, and its original book and score, written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, is constructed differently, with a more free-wheeling approach. Still, there is an essential goodness at play in both shows that carries them successfully to their respective finish lines. Audiences are responding because they are happy to see stories like these which depict people being kind to one another; something not to be taken for granted at a time of increasingly tense polarization in American society.
Besides the beauty of The Band’s Visit’s story, told with lyrical minimalism by Itamar Moses, there is the beauty of David Yazbeck’s score. I fell for his talents ever since 2000, when I first heard the downbeat of the orchestra for the Overture of The Full Monty in its out-of-town engagement in San Diego. I think Yazbeck is not only one of the most eclectic composers writing for the musical theatre, but also one of its most diverse. It’s hard to fathom that the man who wrote Full Monty also composed the more conventional Broadway score to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the Latin-rooted rhythms of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and the sweeping melodies of the Middle East for The Band’s Visit. It just doesn’t seem possible. While I was leaving the theatre, still intoxicated by the music, it dawned on me that Yazbeck’s next mountain to climb is to begin scoring major motion pictures. I have no doubt he could provide the sweep and majesty for an epic, as well as for something humorous on a smaller canvas.
A word about the significant contribution of David Cromer, who directed The Band’s Visit with a near-languorous pace that, in less capable hands, could have been the death of it. But he knew what he was doing, earning its consistency in ways that reap rewards by the time the ninety-minute evening is over. Having been gobsmacked by his staging of Our Town, brought in from his native Chicago in a 2009 production Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theatre, I have been a huge fan of his work. Subsequent shows he has directed that have knocked me out are Tribes, The Man From Nebraska, The Effect and The Treasurer.
Then there are the performances in The Band’s Visit, consisting of a company of actors and musicians who create a perfectly pitched ensemble. Led by Tony Shalhoub (has he ever been less than great in anything?), he conveys a range of emotions without any excess gestures, or even raising his voice. It’s powerful and tender — a winning combination. Then there is Katrina Lenk, who dazzled audiences earlier this past season in the Tony Award winning Indecent. As good as she was in that play, this is the performance that is going to make her a star of the first rank. Her ability to stand on stage and not speak a word, yet convey abundant levels of sensuality, humor and pathos is worthy of a silent film actress. But thankfully, her silences are interrupted from time-to-time by the sound of her glorious singing voice. I am not alone in my praise, as she has received unanimously favorable reviews. Michael Shulman in the New Yorker may have summed it up best, when he called Lenk “the musical’s not-so-secret weapon.”
Although this season has a ways to go before the Tony nominations cut-off date next April 26th, there is every chance that The Band’s Visit will remain my favorite musical of the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons. Go see it!
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.