The Band’s Visit: The human spirit of this show is irresistible
Israeli townspeople and a group of Egyptian police find common ground in this witty and deliciously eerie chamber musical from American composer-lyricist David Yazbek and writer Itamar Moses. Deftly sketching out a series of empathetic encounters over the course of a single night, The Band’s Visit also thrillingly blends musical traditions from the Middle East and the West, and incorporates passages of Arabic and Hebrew dialogue – completely comprehensible without penny. -titles, by the way – in the script.
Michael Longhurst’s European premiere features a cosmopolitan cast, with a standout vocal performance from Israeli star Miri Mesika. It is set against a plywood and cinderblock backdrop by Sutra Gilmour that perfectly suggests the location of the Negev desert and the longing felt by all the characters. Longhurst’s production is slow at times, overcrowded at others, but like a fantasy of micro-level harmony in a troubled region, utterly charming.
The show debuted in 2016 in the United States and won the “big six” Tony Awards for Musical Theater on Broadway the following year. The story is based on a 2007 Israeli film written and directed by Eran Kolirin. Thanks to the quirks of Arabic pronunciation, a police band scheduled to play at a cultural festival finds itself in a desert town without horses. First guarded, the usually bored locals slowly relax at the promise of excitement carried by the new arrivals in their “Sergeant Pepper” uniforms.
Cafe owner Dina (Mesika) is particularly smitten with the stiff, courteous conductor Tewfiq (handsome, gritty but overly emphatic Alon Moni Aboutboul). She shows him the town and they end up briefly showing each other their hearts out.
Flirtatious trumpeter Haled (Sharif Afifi) has the worst conversation line in the world: “You have beautiful eyes. Do you like Chet Baker? But he piggybacks on a local foursome’s double date at a roller coaster nightclub and ends up giving romance advice. The violinist and clarinetist are awkwardly housed in a young couple arguing with a new baby and a dawdling stepfather (Peter Polycarpou, having fun). They create the chord through music.
As suspicions and cultural differences dissolve, the score moves away from the early snark, klezmer-influenced songs like Welcome To Nowhere and It is What it Is to something warmer and more throaty. . Dina Omar Sharif’s song, celebrating the common cultural currency of the Middle East, is particularly beautiful. There are some delightful comedic songs, a lullaby, and a penultimate number from a character called Telephone Guy, whose long wait for his girlfriend’s call ends up representing universal brotherhood.
Many performers in this large cast get little to no lines. The acting is uncertain around the edges and the pace is off at the start. But the human spirit of this show is irresistible and the hard core of musicians and actor-actors tightly knit. When the band finally gets to perform its signature tune at the end – complete with virtuoso solos for clarinet, goblet and lute-like oud – I’m amazed the audience hasn’t invaded the stage and danced with it.
Donmar Warehouse, through Dec. 3; donmarwarehouse.com