Aisle View: A Little Jasmine-Spiced Night Music

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<p>Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in <em>The Band’s Visit</em> </p>

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in The Band’s Visit

Photo: Matthew Murphy

There’s music in the air at the Barrymore: sweetly lush, jasmine-scented melody which bathes the stage—and the audience—in an evening of enchantment. The Band’s Visit is the title, from composer/lyricist David Yazbek, bookwriter Itamar Moses and director David Cromer. A uniquely unconventional musical told in a new manner, it follows pretty much in the steps of Fun Home, Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen: which is to say, it is another musical which tracks a new, different and exciting path.

Things start in a decidedly non-musical manner: the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra—eight strong, wearing powder-blue band uniforms that a skeptic refers to as “Sgt. Pepper suits”—arrives in Israel for a low priority cultural exchange. (The time is 1996, the story based on Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film of the same title.) Through a misfortune of comically-mangled English—the common language for the Israeli and Egyptian characters—the band finds itself stranded in the middle of the Negev, where the bemused natives play host.

It is only when we get to the desert that Yazbek begins to slyly slip in songs. Amusing at first, flavorful next, then ripely funny as leading lady Katrina Lenk takes charge: viciously so, decapitating a melon as she sings of her missing husband (à la Sondheim’s infamous meat pie lady), in “It Is What It Is.” With “The Beat of Your Heart,” Yazbek explodes with an impetuous downbeat which blasts the house altogether. What started as an unconventional play-with-songs becomes a full-fledged musical, heightened by one of the most evocatively beautiful new songs heard on Broadway in years, “Omar Sharif.”

And on it goes. The Band’s Visit is unlikely all through; what at times seems story-less and unvarnished suddenly, and by design, blossoms like a desert flower. Mr. Moses (The Fortress of Solitude) perfectly complements Yazbek’s work, and director Cromer (of Our Town and Adding Machine) provides an altogether enchanting evening. The show, which was a great crowdpleaser (and winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical) when it premiered last December at the Atlantic Theater Company, fully retains its magic uptown.

<p>Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub (center) and the cast of <em>The Band’s Visit</em> </p>

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub (center) and the cast of The Band’s Visit

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Yazbek came to Broadway in 2000 with The Full Monty, which displayed a theatrical newcomer with remarkable instincts. (The novice songwriter, I wrote back then, recalled Frank Loesser. “He isn't up to Loesser yet, naturally. But hidden behind the often-noisy rhythms of this score is a guy who can write for the theatre.) By Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (2005) he had perfected musical comedy writing, while Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2010) displayed remarkably strong writing-to-character. While that musical’s Broadway premiere was underdeveloped and problematic, Yazbek’s score was astonishingly good.

Thus, the warmth, comedy and sheer melodicism of the Band’s Visit should be no surprise to those of us who have been touting the composer all along. This is his best score, and the best of his musicals thus far. While a style encompassing Israeli and Arabic music is decidedly unusual for Broadway, Yazbek—a New York native with Jewish and Lebanese roots—is clearly comfortable from the start; his score consciously evokes Rodgers & Gershwin, ravishingly so in numbers like “Haled’s Song about Love” and “Something Different.”

Standing center is Lenk, the quintessential desert rose. Bristling, wary and eyebrow raised in a perennially sardonic glance, she reveals—when the music of the night gets to her—a sinuous inner tigress. This is the same Lenk who made a mark this spring as one of the girls in the rain in Indecent. We’re not big on predictions based on forthcoming musicals which are not yet in production, but let’s just say that Lenk could well be a Best Actress frontrunner come awards season.

Shalhoub (Act One), as the shyly introverted bandleader Tewfiq, gives yet another bravura stage performance—to the extent that we no longer need to refer to him as the star of a long-running television series, with three Emmys in his pocket. Ari’el Stachel stands out as the musician Haled, acting and singing as well as playing his trumpet. Yazbek gives a solo each to John Cariani, as a nebbishy father; Andrew Polk, as a widower who sings of the downbeat; Etai Benson, as a tongue-tied suitor; and Adam Kantor, as a fellow awaiting an overseas phone call. All offer charming and ingratiating performances, as does George Abud who sports a dangling cigarette and continually clutches his violin case (presumably afraid that one of the Israelis will steal it).

<p> Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in <em>The Band’s Visit</em> </p>

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in The Band’s Visit

Photo: Matthew Murphy

But it’s Mr. Yazbek, and his music, that make this musical. The Band’s Visit is about loneliness, the major characters all isolated in their own desert. And then that jasmine-scented music of the night magically floats honey and spice over them, and over the fortunate patrons at the Barrymore as well.

”The Band’s Visit” opened November 9, 2017 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre