By Patrick O’Brien
To begin to talk about THE BAND’S VISIT and what it does spectacularly well, an anecdote is appropriate.
My alma mater would play host to readings and workshops of brand new musicals every winter. One of them (which, along with its writers, will go unnamed) included a number sung by a bouncer posted outside New York’s Studio 54 during its heyday, who had to keep the protagonist from getting inside for plot-related reasons. The gist of the song was, simply, “Get to the back of the line.” And I remember watching this scene and thinking — perhaps for the first time in my deep dive into musicals — “Why is this song here?” I mean, the actor who sang it was charming, funny, sold it well; the tune had the appropriate funky disco beat; it got some healthy applause and whoo-hoos; but…why? What does this bouncer we’ve just met have to communicate through song? For three minutes of song? Aren’t bouncers, by nature, not the singing type? And if that’s The Joke — Quiet Muscleman unleashes his inner Donna Summer — it wasn’t set up, because he was quite vocal about their moving to the back of the line before singing about it. Nor, quite frankly, did the song have the wit to comment on said irony. “Get to the back of the line,” and nothing but.
I vividly remember thinking, “Musicals need to know when to shut the hell up and stand still…”
That memory always comes to mind when I consider The Band’s Visit, which now rises up from the Cadillac Palace stage almost like a mirage, miraculous, almost unbelievable, but assuredly real. It’s a musical that finds more music in its silences than most others can find in their whole songbooks. Also, like a mirage, it will vanish from Chicago in time, so get in line.
When it begins, for sure, it’s pretty much exactly what we figure David Yazbek, the musical comedy songsmith of our time, would write if told to write songs for a fish-out-of-water story about an Egyptian chamber orchestra stranded overnight in an Israeli town because of a language error. Headed for a concert in the cosmopolitan Petah Tikvah; they instead end up in Bet Hatikvah, a town so one-horse it doesn’t have a horse, just a lazy susan.
Yazbek’s music is appropriately idiomatic, laden with hooks, merrily contrasted with lyrics possessed of his signature dry sense of humor and a flair for improbable but fetching metaphors. (“Time is a river…[and] this sofa is my boat.”) But in cahoots with bookwriter Itamar Moses and David Cromer, a Chicago-bred director who made a name for himself with perfectly executed silences, all drawing on the screenplay for Eran Kolirin’s indie film of the same name, he takes some hard left turns off the thirty-two bar path and into the shimmering desert of new possibilities.
Consider Dina (Chilina Kennedy), the proprietor of the town’s cafe and de facto leader, who divvies up the band into a handful of homes for their stay. What compels this worldly spirit to live in a town in the middle of the middle of nowhere? As expected, she starts to sing, hinting at a troubled marriage born of youthful naïveté, and how she’s “learned her lesson, [and grew] up a little…”
Then it is what it is
You’ve got what you got
Then blah, blah, blah…
That’s it. That’s where the song ends, mid-verse, barely a minute old. And we know everything we need to know about Dina’s world-weary facade.
Or consider Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay, reprising the role he originated on film), the orderly but discontented conductor of the orchestra, the nominal leading man. Surely, in song, he will tap into the deep-running still waters of his heart. He only has one song, a capella, in Arabic, untranslated, and also barely a minute long.
Min el wihda
Min el farah….
And again, it says everything we need to know about how he copes — or ignores — the trauma that hides behindbeneath his crisp uniform.
Or consider the whole premise of Egyptians and Israelis — two peoples with contentious, often bloody histories — perforced to share the same space, if only for a night. One might either expect the two factions to come to shouty blows, or maybe even band together in harmony with some pat song about how they’re not so different after all.
They do harmonize. Exactly once. And then they part. That’s all we need to know that this accidental visit will have some impact, even if the musical begins and ends with the modest understatement that “it wasn’t very important.”
It’s not all glorious song fragments, though. There’s glorious songs, too, where Yazbek, et al really let these deeply humane moments flourish, however fleeting they may ultimately be. The central ballad, “Omar Sharif,” springing from Dina and Tewfiq’s mutual admiration of the Egyptian film star andwhich bringingbrings them that much closer together, can make a star in the downbeat of its second verse:
Friday evening, Omar Sharif
In black and white and blurry through tears….
…wherein Dina seems seized by the memory of seeing something different for the first time, a different culture, on a screen ten feet high. Like her Broadway forebear Katrina Lenk, Chilina Kennedy can astonish with just a wave of her hand and a voice like “a jasmine wind.”
Or there’s the song simply known as “Haled’s Song About Love,” wherein trumpeter Haled (Joe Joseph), heretofore a self-styled ladies’ man, reveals he may actually know what he’s talking about, lame pick-up lines like “Do you like Chet Baker ”aside:
Not break the ice
You melt the ice
You melt yourself
And soon, you’re all one puddle…
…all to help the hapless Papi (Adam Gabay) make his first move. It’s jazzy, but, well, Chet Baker-cool.
Everything about this touring production, watched over by Cromer himself, creates an atmosphere for listening and engaging, from its songs to its silences and even on down to the wispy message to turn off cell phones (projected in English, Hebrew, and Arabic). It will place dots for the souls in Bet Hatikvah to try and connect, but it won’t push any buttons where onean audience can unthinkingly hoot and holler. They may wander, but there is always purpose to it. And even the most fragmented songs in The Band’s Visit, you’ll wish they could stay a little longer.
They don’t need to say anything more than they do already, but these desert songs and their yearning strains can still strum a chord somewhere in your mind, when all is hushed and still. “sStrange and sweet.”, indeed.
Broadway in Chicago presents “The Band’s Visit” through September 15 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are here.