REVIEW: THE BANDS VISIT (Ethel Barrymore Theatre) ★★★
The Bands Visit, in the same dark horse nature it swept the Tony’s, is hushed and modest in every aspect. The show triumphed over every other Broadway competitor, winning ten awards including Best New Musical. Despite its unusually brief 90 minute running time, this enchanting show is often described as a slow burner and certainly lives up to this, as its charm wafts about the room like an expensive candle.
The piece is adapted from Eran Kolirin’s 2008 film of the same title, about a group of eight Egyptian musicians invited to Israel to perform for the opening of an Arab Cultural Centre. Distracted by ogling the ticket officer, womaniser Haled (played by Ari’el Stache) asks that the group be sent to Beit Hatikvah instead of Petah Tiqva (an easy mistake with correct pronunciation). When the bus swings into this dead-end town, the group are met by the locals with apathetic frowns. However, with no way of leaving until the next day, the men are taken pity on and spend the night as inhabitants, dotted about in family homes, roller discos and canteens.
The script by Itamar Moses and direction by David Cromer ally to brand the piece with a brazenly slow pace. Dialogue swings like a hypnotists pocket watch, from light hearted comedy to deeply spiritual and conflictual moments. Despite this, the characters say very little, with several pauses in between. The slow pace and tension of the piece is deeply reflective of the Israeli and Egyptian conflict, however, becomes slightly fatiguing after a few dry humoured jokes wither in succession.
David Yazbe’s score is abundantly rich and the cast are so musically talented, it beggars belief. Katrina Lenk as Dina sings ‘Omar Sharif’ with haunting inner turmoil and the eight baby-blue-suited members of the band play magnificently, each accomplished musicians with their respective instruments. In fact, the final ten minutes of the piece seem just about worth the up to $219 ticket price tag, as the band play a mythically bewitching concert which is met with thunderous applause.
I suppose the latter proves the show, at its heart, is about communication through music – that music is a language we must never underestimate for its power to love, respect and accept. In this sense, its understandable why there are moments aplenty where a pin could drop. One could argue that the script is designed to make room for the absence of music, forever foreboding a song which turns any tension on its head.
Having said this, as a Broadway show following a narrative structure, the story feels incomplete, simply abandoned as the band exits. There is something about this which leaves the audience left in an inconclusive state.
Perhaps dissatisfaction is a symptom of the inevitably high expectations a show burdens following a successful award season. Nevertheless, The Band’s Visit left me wondering how it hasn’t found itself lost amongst the vibrancy of the current New York theatre landscape.
Reviewed by Nicole Darvill-Batten