Wednesday, January 8, 2020

This Enthralling Musical Is A Triumph!

Can you imagine a Broadway musical where it appears as if not much of anything happens?
Can you imagine s show with the bare minimum of scenery, hardly any costumes, virtually no choreography and no special effects of any sort?
Can you imagine a musical where the music at times seems merely incidental, to the point where you're tempted to call it a play with music?
If you can, then you've imagined The Band's Visit, Broadway'sTony-winning musical sensation which is now in Philadelphia as part of the Kimmel Center's Broadway at the Academy series.
This musical is based on a rather obscure 2007 Israeli film rejected as a candidate for a best Foreign Language Film Oscar because it contained more than 50 percent English dialogue.
Here's the story: The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, consisting of eight men, arrive in Israel from Egypt. They have been booked by an Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva, but through a miscommunication (Arabic has no "p" sound, and regularly replaces it with "b"), the band takes a bus to Beit Hatikva, a fictional town in the middle of the Negev Desert. It is literally a sort of no man's land. The Egyptians encounter a few Israeli townspeople, who respond with curiosity about the band, are variously friendly and wary, and provide them with shelter, food, music and companionship during their overnight visit. There is no transportation out of the town that day, and there are no hotels for them to spend the night in. The band members dine at a small restaurant where the owner, Dina  invites them to stay the night at her apartment, at her friends' apartment, and in the restaurant. No one actually falls in love, but a sense of unspoken longing and loneliness is expressed.
In fact, pared down to it bare essentials the show is about two things: an anguished longing for love and the power of music (all kinds of music) to heal.
This show runs about ninety minutes without an intermission and this Philadelphia production is every bit as good as the original broadway mounting if not better.
With music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Itamar Moses (adapted from the screenplay) The Band's Visit is one, continuous, unbroken thread. And the show manages to be methodical without appearing to be in the least bit manipulative. The music, such as it is, is mostly haunting and mixes both eastern and western genres. It's mesmerizing!
While waiting for Something Really Big to happen, you watch this extraordinarily precise production and you wonder how and why it's holding your attention. Well, one of the reasons is the restrained acting of the two leads, the cafe owner and the band's leader. 
There is so much sexual tension between these two that the space around them literally crackles without making a sound. The show's cast of 14 displaced and/or mismatched characters create a sort of lugubrious lullaby of desire and the cast on the Academy stage is extraordinary. It's so obvious that these characters have much more in common than we or they might have thought and yet it's also apparent that they will barely acknowledge it even though they want to act upon it. And yet, there is nonetheless a sense of sharing and understanding here.
Part of the appeal of The Band's Visit is that it does not preach, and we can all be thankful for that. This is a zen musical. It simply is. You are free to observe it in its purest form, (much as you would real life) and make your own judgements -- or not make any judgements at all.
The secret of the show is that it holds back. It's as if the director, David Cromer instructed the actors to abridge every word, every sentence, every movement and every action to the point where the audience is consumed with anticipation. There's a feeling of deliberateness about the whole thing -- an ongoing mindfulness -- that permeates the atmosphere. In this sense, it's the polar opposite of a traditional Broadway musical where exaggeration is the norm.
Of course, all of this restraint has to be released, yes? Well, maybe -- or maybe not.
There is a sort of rousing epilogue but it's not really part of the story. And that only adds to the allure of the most unique musical Broadway has seen in many years.
Nothing happens. You'll be enthralled!

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