Broadway musicals traditionally begin with a bang, a rousing overture or an elaborate, entertaining and informative opening number to grab the audience’s attention.
In stark contrast is “The Band’s Visit,” which begins with a tongue-in-cheek warning that it involves a small overseas incident — some Egyptian musicians who get lost in Israel — that “you probably didn’t hear about” and “wasn’t very important.” But from that point on, you’re hooked.
This modest, mild-mannered but utterly absorbing musical, based on a 2007 Israeli film of the same title, has transferred to Broadway following a short Off-Broadway run last year produced by the Atlantic Theater Company.
It concerns the all-male Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, led by the stern and sad commander-conductor Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub, in a full-bodied performance), which has been invited to perform at a new cultural center in the Israeli town of Petah Tikvah.
But due to a linguistic misunderstanding, the men arrive instead in the small, desolate desert village of Bet Hatikva. Luckily, Dina (the alluring Katrina Lenk, who recently appeared on Broadway in “Indecent”), a sexy and outspoken Israeli café operator, agrees to put the men up for the night while they wait for the next bus to arrive.
Dina takes a liking to Tewfiq and shows him around the town, namely its industrial cafeteria, a pay phone stand (where a young man has been waiting for days for his girlfriend to call) and an empty park. Some of the other musicians check out a roller rink and a young family’s cramped apartment.
While there is little plot or character development, one by one the players open up in song and dialogue, revealing that they are suffering from emotional paralysis and the monotony of everyday life.
The integration of David Cromer’s intimate and sensitive direction; David Yazbek’s Middle-Eastern flavored score, much of which is performed onstage by cast members; and Itamar Moses’ book, which hews closely to the original screenplay, is so seamless that it is virtually impossible to pick apart.
They have turned a slight, short, quiet tale into an urgent, realistic and relatable portrait of vulnerable individuals from different cultures who are able to make an unexpected human connection, often just through a shared appreciation for music.
“The Band’s Visit” may lack the epic excitement and intensity of something like “Hamilton” or “Dear Evan Hansen,” but I doubt that a better written new musical will come to Broadway this season.