In the Middle East, there’s a long history of music breaking down walls, all the way back to Joshua’s trumpets at Jericho.
The modern Middle East is portrayed in the musical The Band’s Visit, which opened tonight at the Ethel Barrymore after a long and successful run off Broadway.
The Band’s Visit is this season’s Hamilton. If you don’t buy tickets now, you’re going to pay a heck of a lot more later.
So here’s the play in a nutshell:
The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra comes to Israel for a performance at the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva.
Unfortunately, the band members speak no Hebrew, and their English isn’t all that great, either.
Instead of getting bus tickets for Petah Tikva, they end up in a beyond-the-beyond development town of Beit ha-Tikva, where there is no cultural center, Arab or Israeli, and where there is no culture at all, for that matter.
So here you’ve got the Egyptians, speaking some English and no Hebrew, trying to figure out what went wrong and where to go next, bumping up against the Israeli residents of the town, who speak some English and no Arabic.
Religion, politics, and history barely factor into the equation after the first few awkward moments.
Instead, it turns out that the Egyptians and Israelis share the common bonds of humanity, loneliness, and hope.
Indeed, the names of the two towns both contain the word hope—Petah Tikva means The Opening of Hope and Beit ha-Tikva means House of Hope.
The show is based on a 2007 Israeli film, Bikur Ha-Tizmoret, The Band’s Visit, written and directed by Eran Kolirin, which Roger Ebert called one of the top 20 films of that year.
The film won awards world-wide, including recognition from UNESCO for its ability to, well, break down walls with music.
Whoever had the genius-level idea of finding a Broadway musical in that movie should be taking a huge bow alongside the amazing cast at the end of every performance.
It’s hard enough to compress a film onto stage, which this production does absolutely perfectly with direction by David Cromer and set design by Scott Pask.
What makes the show unforgettable are the songs, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and the book by Itamar Moses.
Try out these lyrics, which encapsulate the history and boring nature of the town in 25 words or less:
Pick a sand hill of your choosing / Take some bricks that no one’s using / Build some buildings, Put some Jews in / Then, blah blah blah…/ Beit ha-Tikva!
Yazbek’s ability to capture in song Israeli sarcasm and the ability to poke fun at itself, as well as the dignity and humanity of the visiting Egyptians, is pitch perfect.
So are the performances.
Katrina Lenk plays Dina, the owner of the Beit ha-Tikva Cafe to which the Egyptian band repairs after it realizes the mistake it’s made.
Lenk sings with unmatched virtuosity and acts with a smoldering sensuality combined with woundedness cloaked in Sabra toughness. Her performance is miraculous, flawless, and incandescently sexy.
Opposite her as the Egyptian band conductor is the brilliant Tony Shalhoub, who is dignified, sensitive, heartwarming, and heartbreaking, all at the same time.
The show, which runs for 90 minutes without intermission, offers a series of encounters between the Egyptians and the Israelis. Those encounters – at Dina’s café, in small apartments, in a restaurant, in a park, at a roller skating rink – demonstrate that the religious and political differences that have riven the region are superfluous to the workings of the human heart.
The play is also riotously funny; I don’t want to spoil any of the laughter for you, so you’ll just have to see for yourself.
War has kept these individuals from connecting in the past; music brings them together.
You have to go back to A Chorus Line to find as flawless an evening of new songs that capture the imagination, make you laugh and cry, and above all, offer a message of hope.
One comes away from The Band’s Visit with the wistful sense that if only more groups of total strangers could get stranded in each other’s communities for a night, peace might break out everywhere on the planet.
That’s a lot to get from a Broadway musical, but this Broadway musical is incomparable in terms of both ambition and execution.
Which will come sooner, peace in the Middle East or the end of the Broadway run of The Band’s Visit? Probably peace, and maybe this musical will help.
The Band’s Visit will steal your heart as it wins multiple Tonys for Best Everything. Go in peace.