Your Independent, Jewish and Frankly Feminist Review of “The Band’s Visit”

band's visit group shotKristina Lenk’s right arm floats, gracefully and magically, as she sings about memories, emotions and desires—not that the rest of her body or her lovely voice aren’t just as expressive in “The Band’s Visit,” the new Broadway musical about sweet and bittersweet encounters between Jews and Arabs in a tiny Israeli town.

Her swaying arm, however, seems to embody the complicated make-up of the actor’s character, Dina, a former dancer who, because of a romance gone bad that apparently derailed her career, has learned to “settle in” to a more constricted life as the proprietor of a cafe.

Dina seems to be happy enough, playing a central role in her community, confident, competent and in charge. She organizes her town’s response when an Egyptian band lands there by mistake, resulting in unexpected bonds. In Dina’s case, it also leads to revelations of her yearnings for a less lonely, more connected life. She embodies a dilemma that feminism hasn’t able been to solve: that of a strong woman who has made bold decisions but finds herself regretting some of them and reconciling herself to a life she didn’t choose.

The musical, based on a 2007 Israeli movie with the same title, had a highly praised, award-winning run at the Off-Broadway Atlantic Theater last December and January. Now, less than a year later, it has landed at the much-larger Ethel Barrymore Theater on West 47th Street, with an expanded though similar turntable set and most of the same cast. That includes the two leads, Lenk (who meanwhile took a starring Broadway turn in “Indecent,” about the scandal surrounding a 1920s Yiddish play, which can be seen on PBS’s Great Performances on Nov. 17, and Tony Shalhoub, who plays Tewfiq, the stiffly courteous leader of the hapless but grandly named Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra.

The qualities that helped make the earlier stage production so beloved—the quiet intimacy, fable-like moments, and oblique hints rather than blatant announcements of its theme—remain intact. Could David Cromer’s carefully calibrated direction use more briskness? I don’t think so, though a friend who saw the show for the first time with me thought it could—just a tad. It also makes virtually no mention of the discomfort that Egyptians and Israelis might feel in each other’s presence. But an infusion of global politics would require a wider lens than the one chosen by Itamar Moses, the author of the musical’s book, and David Yazbek, the lyricist and composer who wrote a glorious score that mixes Middle Eastern inflections with pop melodies and more. The show focuses more narrowly on the human interactions, with a wry humor that is also understated.

The tone is set with projections of simple words during the overture: “Once not long ago a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt.” That is followed by: “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”

The first scene, in an airport bus station, establishes how the band comes to visit an isolated town in the Negev desert. They are on their way to perform at the dedication of a new Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tivka  (a real city with more than 230,000 inhabitants east of Tel Aviv). But they take a bus to sparsely-populated (fictional) Bet Hatikva, which they pronounce as though it is written Betah Tikva.

Once they arrive, the townspeople—well, Dina and the two guys who seem to hang out at her cafe all day long—set them straight about the vast gulf between p and b. (The Israelis and Arabs speak English to each other, because it’s their only common language, though both groups speak English imperfectly and laboriously, putting an accent on an underlying theme of communicating between cultures.)

As Dina sings in a jaunty song, Petah Tikva is “such a city, everybody loves it, lots of fun, lots of art, lots of culture.”  Her town, with the fateful b, is “basically bleak and beige and blah blah blah.” It has no art or culture–and no hotel, either. She suggests (or commands, really) that the seven musicians and their conductor be divided up to board overnight at the cafe, at her place and at the home of the unemployed Itzik (John Cariani, who later sings a delicate lullaby to his infant son).

katrina lenk arm

Dina chooses Tewfiq as one of her boarders, and it’s immediately clear that she finds the band leader attractive, despite his melancholy demeanor. Or perhaps because of it. He seems as alone and unmoored as she does. She shares some of her longings in the song “Omar Sharif,” about watching romantic movies with her mother, one of best songs among many moving melodies. Dina’s “Something Different,” especially as rendered by Lenk and her arm movements, is another standout. Something does indeed bloom between Dina and Tewfiq, though not what you might expect in a musical.

This show stays mercifully free of sentimentality. It does have a streak of old-fashioned sentiment, though, such as a man identified in the program as Telephone Guy (Adam Kantor) who has spent every night for at least a month silently staring at an outdoor public telephone waiting for his girlfriend to call. He’s not as metaphorical as a fiddler on the roof, but he could be one of the inhabitants of Anatevka.  Late in the show, he sings a plaintive song, “Answer Me,” which the entire ensemble eventually joins in on.

That thoughtful tone, though, doesn’t mean the show is devoid of bright spots. It has many. For one thing, the band members often play their instruments on stage—very nicely and often rousingly, supplemented occasionally by a few offstage musicians. 

At Itzik’s  home, Israelis and Egyptians joyously sing a few stanzas of “Summertime” together, reveling in their common knowledge. The song sparks a recollection by Avrum (Andrew Polk), Itzik’s father in law, of how he first saw and fell in love with the woman who would become his wife. He explains the importance of music in the romance (“love starts when the tune is sweet”) in “The Beat of Your Heart,” a snappy ballad with a Latin infusion (“The Girl from Ipanema” is one of the tunes the lyrics refer to).    

In another upbeat scene, band member Haled (Ari’el Stachel), a smooth fellow who previously exhibited a mildly creepy side by ineffectually coming on to nearly every woman he sees, redeems himself. In a mellifluous number, “Haled’s Song About Love,” he gently tutors the awkward Papi (Etai Benson) in a roller rink on how to woo his date, Julia (Rachel Prather).

It should be noted that, except for Dina, there are no major roles for women. Itzik’s unhappy wife, Iris (Kristen Sieh), makes an impression with her frustration at having to take care of an infant all day and all night, but that’s a brief sequence.

However, the whole show belongs to Dina. And to Lenk. At the end, she says the words seen at the beginning: “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” But it was.

 The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.