Sunday 22 July 2018

The Band's Visit on Broadway, or, Too Late for Love?

As I stood opposite the box office, waiting to see if there was going to be a cancellation freeing up two tickets, I wondered whether the effort was really worthwhile. This show turned out to be the theatrical highlight of my New York trip.

Based on a 2006 Israeli film the show follows the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Band as they take the wrong bus and end up in an obscure town in the middle of Israel where nothing ever happens. Just about every character in this show is in some way lost. The unexpected collision of people becomes a means of forcing them to open up - an opening in which, just maybe, fragile hope for the future can be glimpsed in a word, in a wave.

At the heart of the narrative are the conductor of the band, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay), and the manager of the run down restaurant where the band first arrives - Dina (Katrina Lenk). Slowly they bond over a shared love for Omar Sharif's films - Itamar Moses's book capturing beautifully that moment when two strangers find they have something unexpected in common, something that has an emotional truth for them both. That moment becomes the means to force Dina to admit to herself that she can still feel, and for Tewfiq, eventually, to reveal the reason for his reserve.

Around this central pair we are given glimpses of other townsfolk - suffering marital problems, absent girlfriends, blank futures - and of band members who have left concertos unfinished, face arranged marriages, or are simply trying to work out how to get to the town they're supposed to be visiting. The narratives are expertly dove-tailed - we see just enough of all of them to believe in them all and, more importantly, to care about their fates.

Among its many qualities this show has a lovely balance of comedy and seriousness. Nowhere is this more perfectly illustrated than in the young band member Haled's (Ari'el Stachel) story. He starts a series of attempted seductions with the question "Do you know Chet Baker?...My Funny Valentine...". We laugh forgivingly, affectionately about this each time until it's transmuted near the end into one of those extraordinary moments that make the watcher shiver, and brought tears to my eyes.

The show is also able to poke fun at itself. The power of music is an important theme, but the show can also turn this upside down by having Tewfiq announce that actually fishing is more important than music - an assertion that seems at first a throwaway joke and turns out to be the beginning of another intricately crafted thread of story.

The ensemble is outstanding. The supporting parts depend enormously on looks, how they hold themselves physically, the small gesture - the violinist for example constantly touching his instrument case when anybody moves near it - we never fully learn why, but it's subtly suggestive. Band members are, appropriately, also musicians performing the score - their positioning around the edges of the action helping to create the overall feel of the group lost in this town.

The two central roles are superbly performed. Katrina Lenk's Dina moving from suppressed rage to a sensual rediscovery of romantic possibilities. Sasson Gabay's Tewfiq, in his Broadway debut, has the harder task, but the restraint, the suppression, makes his gradual, painful opening up all the more powerful. This is a show where the simple use of the words "my boy" has extraordinary emotional power.

The staging (designed by Scott Pack, directed by David Cromer) is deceptively simple and packs real punch. We move between the spare open spaces and the simple houses and public buildings of the town. Tyler Micoleau's lighting adds just the right amount of subtle atmosphere. I never felt anything more was needed.

David Yasbek's score successfully marries a familiar Broadway idiom to traditional Arabic sounds. Although there are distinctive numbers, music also flows as an accompaniment through the piece making a crucial contribution to overall mood.

What I think I finally loved most about this show is the way that, from such a deceptively simple story (again the show is nicely ironic about this - you may not have heard about the incident, it wasn't that important) it finds such depths about how we treat each other, about love, loss, anger, forgiveness, and about politics. Middle Eastern conflicts are never overtly mentioned, but it is impossible not to be conscious of them. And the show is a small but powerful message of how we might perhaps start to address those troubles. That message is, it seems to me, one of fragile hope. And it seems to link in my mind with one of the final images. The rest of the band has left and for a precious moment Tewfiq and Dina are looking at each other. She raises her hand and so does he - for a man of such physical constraint it leaves us with a tiny hope.

This is a simply marvellous show that brought tears to my eyes. If you're within striking distance of New York City don't miss it. London deserves to see it too - personally I think it would suit the National's Olivier.

1 comment:

Geo. said...

I saw the show last November, with Tony Shalhoub as Tewfiq. I wasn't sure what to expect, not having seen the movie, and found it very charming. I trust that you stayed through to the very end of the show :) . Glad you got to see it and that you enjoyed it.

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