The Band’s Visit: The Perfect Scent of Jasmine
Midway through this lovely musical, an Israeli woman, Dina (an absolutely fierce and fantastic Katrina Lenk) in the small desert town of Bet Haatikva sings an enchanting song called “Omar Sharif” to a visiting Egyptian man. She recalls nights at home with her mother, watching Egyptian movies on television and dreaming of another world, infused with the sweet aroma of jasmine. Those memories are steeped in the mystery of an exotic land far, far away seen through the lens of black and white movies starring the European film stars Anouk Aimée, Simone Signoret, and, of course, the handsome and charming Omar Sharif. They filled her with wonder, hope, and a feeling of something very different from her familiar small town. This song perfectly captures the absolute joy of this compelling new musical. The excitingly fresh score floats through the air of the Linda Gross Theater where the Atlantic Theater Company is presenting The Band’s Visit, filling our hearts and our minds with romance, humor, love, and longing of a different people and a different world. But one that we can all relate to and understand.
The man Dina sings that song to is the strong and ever so polite, Tewfiq, (a wonderfully detailed Tony Shalhoub), the conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra that has come to Isreal to play at the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva. Their chemistry together is subtle and sublime. Through a misunderstanding by the ever-so-handsome trumpeter and confident ladies’ man, Haled (a velvety smooth voiced Ari’El Stachel, who could make anyone swoon with a look and a song), this police band finds themselves on the door step of Dina’s cafe, far away from their intended destination. Lost, and in need of help, Dina and her friends; Itzik (a tender and endearing John Cariani) and the shy Papi (a heart-warming Daniel David Stewart) embrace the lost foreigners. They decide to breath in the scent of something new and unexpected, and offer their help and homes for the night. The residents of this town are itching for something to shake up their boredom and staleness. This is made utterly clear in the opening song, “Waiting” and “Welcome to Nowhere” of how deep the need is for that whiff of some strange spice to penetrate the air of this desert town.
The cast is exceptional, each one making their mark with song after song seeped in intimate emotionality of every range and color. David Yazbek (music and lyrics) and Itamar Moses (book) have created a gloriously original story that envelopes us with a musical sense and style steeped in the two different cultures and somehow blends them in a way that creates something old and new at the same time. On both sides of that culture aisle, we see passion, care, and affection, dipping in longing and personal history, scented with love and humor. For a show about Egyptians and Isrealis, the show lacks almost any political lectures except for one brief moment of tension and suspicion, which is quickly pushed aside by one labeling his neighbor an ‘asshole’, and moving on to the more important human element that brings them all together; love. There is an absolutely charming moment between the incredibly handsome Haled (a star making performance by Stachel) singing a song dripping with honey and velvet, trying to help the young and scared Papi (Stewart) step over his fears of the opposite sex, and embrace an opportunity that is sitting right in front of him. It’s a touching and musically beautiful moment that embraces the whole idea of these two worlds coming together. No politics are needed in this simple tale, just the universal impact of fulfillment and love.
Directed with precision and a knack for both beauty and impact, David Cromer achieves something as wonderful and glorious as the music that swirls out of the band’s instruments (excellent work by music director Andrea Grody, the musicians, and orchestrations by Janshied Sharifi). The staging (sets: Scott Pask, lights: Tyler Micoleau; costumes: Sarah Laux) and choreography (Patrick McCollum) are seamless and enrich the already beautiful and funny story lines that play out that one night where strangers are forced by fate to entangle themselves in another world’s residents. Simon (Alok Tewari), the tender clarinetist and composer of an unfinished concerto and the sweet nervous Camal, the violinist (George Abud) find themselves at the dinner table with a troubled couple, Itzik (Cariani), Iris (a wonderfully sullen Kristen Sieh), and her father, Avrum (a deeply emotionally voiced, Andrew Polk), and their baby. The beauty lies in the depth of the trapped and confused, and universal humanity the embraces us all.
Unfortunately for this blog (and for you, the reader, if you are just hearing about this show) the show is closing on January 8th, the day I am posting this. I wish I had seen it weeks ago, so I could have told you all to run and grab a ticket. But the show has done amazingly well without my rave, not surprisingly. There wasn’t an empty seat to be found at today’s matinee. My only hope for you all is that the show will transfer to Broadway or somewhere else. It is really deserving of a longer run then was possible here. (The world premiere play, Tell Hector I Miss Him by Paola Lazaro is beginning its run at the Linda Gross Theater on the 11th of January, so no more room at th inn for this show.) So I will cross my fingers for you, and pray to get a whiff of that jasmine floating through Broadway, and when I do, we will know that The Band’s Visit has returned for a second and hopefully longer visit to NYC.