If you’ve travelled a lot in places where you can’t speak the language, you’ll understand immediately how this Egyptian Band wound up in the wrong tikva: on their way to the Israeli city of Petah Tikva, they wind up in the little Israeli desert town of Bet Hatikva. As someone who doesn’t speak Hebrew or Arabic, I looked up the word tikva and I learned that it means “hope” and comes from the Hebrew root kavah, meaning "to bind together."
How perfect for this lovely and unusual and deeply human new musical, about both hope and binding together. Learning this word retroactively lit up a bittersweet line in the show: “Hope is a reality in our lives.”
When the Band is stranded, a few of the townspeople take them in, although there is nothing of the traditionally heartwarming and happy-ever-aftering about the plot. Actually, there’s nothing much of a plot, just time passing, people talking, musicians playing. And longing for love. And waiting. And hoping.
Starring the sensational Katrina Lenk as the Israeli proprietor of a little cafe and the profound Tony Shalhoub as the Egyptian conductor of the band, each shows the other’s strengths, both as characters — she is all sinuous, ironic sexuality; he is all formal restraint and a mournful “No, no … ” — and as actors. They talk much of the night — about music, about Omar Sharif movies, about their past lives — as these scenes melt into scenes of other characters’ lives happening at the same time as the stage revolves. “Nothing is as beautiful as something you don’t expect,” she sings.
There are the unhappy married couple, the young lover waiting for his girlfriend to call on the one pay phone, the widower, the playboy, the shy boy, the shy girl — it’s a wonderful, luminous cast.
Some of the songs are narrative, some are wordless, some have words supplied by our memories (“My Funny Valentine”) on saxophone (Sam Sadigursky), some with a haunting combination of oud, cello, clarinet, and drum (Philip Mayer!). With a subtle and tender book by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, The Band’s Visit nearly reinvents the idea of the musical. David Cromer’s direction is as delicate and witty as the show deserves.
At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street, New York.