by Megan Ort
Every theatergoer should see The Band’s Visit.. The show takes place over one 24-hour span in which the Alexandria Ceremonial Band from Egypt unexpectedly spends the night in a fictional rural town in Israel called Bet Hatikva. From the very beginning of the play, the tone is set for a cheeky and self-aware telling of this seemingly inconsequential series of happenings between foreigners. Based on the synopsis, it’s hard to imagine this story with any sort of high stakes. Yet the tension, both dramatic and comedic, is palpable from onset to conclusion. The play was a beautiful exploration of interactions between people of different cultures, and how even the briefest of experiences with a stranger can leave a profound impact.
I loved The Band’s Visit as a whole because I feel the show uniquely challenges the norm of what we know to be commercial musical theater. I walked away from the theatre feeling refreshed, and the sensation stayed with me for days, even weeks afterwards. With hardly any spectacle at all, this show spoke to me through its writing, direction, and courageously honest execution by the cast. The only moments I would consider remotely flashy were the instrumental solos and improvisation, which were incredible to witness live! These moments were earned and fueled by the profound need to express and celebrate, rather than flaunting virtuosity.
I felt that one of the goals of this show was to capture authenticity. I appreciate how this speaks to the current cultural climate. David Yazbeck’s use of harmonic minor scale and the oud (an instrument resembling a guitar or mandolin) evoked an authentic Middle Eastern sound. The score is surprising, playful, and haunting, and the music works in perfect synchronicity with the action. The lyrics are divine. Just take a listen to “Omar Sharif” for an imaginative journey through poetry. Itamar Moses’ scenes were strategically dry, direct, and naturalistic, almost to the point of discomfort. The jarring contrast between the scenes and the rich, epic musical moments paralleled the characters’ battle between the need to survive in a harsh, lonely world and the need to love and connect. The play is made all the more effective and entertaining with its delightful sprinkles of wit and comedic relief to cut the tension and keep the audience on our toes.
The ensemble work was breathtaking. Every actor was connected by trust – trust in the material and David Cromer’s direction, trust in one another, trust that the jokes would land, trust that the audience would lean in to listen to the slow moments, and trust in silence and stillness. I felt as though I was watching real people; as if I knew who they were or I had seen them before: the giddy girls at the roller rink, the quiet families at the local restaurant, the exhausted wife and listless husband, the young man hilariously crippled by fear of rejection.
The acting was unselfish; every word served a purpose, no note was held too long or over-embellished. I especially applaud Adam Kantor’s performance of “Answer Me” and John Cariani’s “Itzik’s Lullaby.” Both actors surrender to the words and the music. Kristen Sieh’s performance as Iris moved me to tears; her relationship arc with Cariani rings painfully true. And Katrina Lenk is a rare gift. Her completely unselfconscious embodiment of the character Dina was unlike anything I’ve seen in a musical in long time. Her strong physicality and intriguing vocal quality clearly stem from the character’s truth. She lives the story and the music in a way that is raw, guttural, and free of technique; it is pure magic.
I was lucky to see The Band’s Visit on a special night when the NYPD Ceremonial Band performed a reprise after the show. The introduction to their mini concert recognized music as the universal language. Through music we can speak to one another, heal, and express truth in a way words can’t always achieve. I wish The Band’s Visit a long and successful run, and I hope many more audiences may be moved in the way I was.