• StevenF

The Band's Visit

Isaias and I just returned from seeing the musical, The Band's Visit, based on the movie of the same name. It is unlikely that you will see this post about it until at least tomorrow (today for you, tomorrow for me, as another musical might say it). But as I have started writing this, I just came back from seeing it at The Smith Center here in Las Vegas.

One lyric from one of the songs, "Something Different," caught my ear: "Nothing is as beautiful as something that you don't expect."

Well, I'm not sure what I expected when I went to see The Band's Visit, but it was definitely beautiful and definitely "something different."

I actually can't say enough about it, but what I do feel sums up my feelings in one word is "captivating." I found it absolutely captivating. It was unlike any musical I have seen in some time. A musical it reminded me of, at least in terms of structure and boldness, is The Light in The Piazza, which I also adore. But it was also quite different from Piazza as well.

What I think I most loved about it was how theatrical it was, yet also did so in a way that used a lot of minimalism and simplicity. Three shows I remember being so in awe of when I saw them were the Utah Shakespeare Company's production of Peter and the Starcatcher, Cockroach Theater Company (now Vegas Theatre Company)'s production of The Father, and The Lab LV's production of The Royale. All three used clever but unvarnished theatrical devices to tell their stories in enormously compelling ways.

In the case of The Father, the structure of the script and some set magic told a story of dementia from the point of view of the person with dementia; Peter and The Starcatcher used simple props and staging to tell the magical backstory of how Peter Pan and Captain Hook came to be; and The Royale, one of the most spectacular theatre pieces I have ever seen, used a bare-boned, minimalist set, clever staging, and percussion and rhythm to tell the story of boxer as a metaphor to pose questions about racism in America.

I love theatre that draws me in, makes me think, challenges me, and does so in unique and theatrical ways. I'm not as interested in shows that are pretentious, weird, and different just for the sake of being different; I love things that use theatricality to tell amazing, though-provoking stories. And when they go about it in unusual ways, I find it interesting.

For example, I found the staging of the fairly recent musical, Come From Away, enormously theatrical in a good way, although I wasn't as in awe of it as these other shows I have mentioned.

But tonight's production of The Band's Visit is one of those pieces that left me thinking I had seen and experienced something really special. And that producers took a chance on bringing something to Broadway that didn't feel obviously commercial and that theaters are willing to bring the touring version to audiences warms my heart. Because this show really feels like a critical darling and maybe something a frequent theatergoer might enjoy, but I'm not sure if it is necessarily Joe and Jane Q. Public's cup of tea. In fact, as I watched the show this evening, I could feel the energy of several audience members squirming in their seats with...boredom, perhaps?

I was not bored. Far from it. I was immensely engaged. But I do recognize what some theatergoers might not enjoy about a show like this:

  • The pace is slow. Like super slow. Deliberately slow. There's no big opening number to start the show off with a bang. You're sort of eased into it, and director David Cromer was not afraid of pauses, silences, and musical accompaniment without words.

I don't mind slow-paced productions if they're engaging. For example, I found the paces of the movies Roma, Nomadland, and Sling Blade quite slow and deliberate, but I was definitely hooked by the stories and characters. The Band's Visit was a lot like that for me. And I had seen the movie upon which this musical is based, and the film's pace is quite slow, too. So I was not surprised the musical was slow-paced as well.

No, I take that back. I was surprised. Surprised that a musical would take its cue from the slow pace of a subtle, foreign, independent film. But it did.

There are moments of characters making sounds in silence or parts where only music is playing—often just one instrument.

  • Nothing really happens, plot-wise, and yet so much does.

So the plot of both the film and the stage production is that an Egyptian military band accidentally goes to the wrong town in Israel to perform. Stranded in this tiny town for the night, the band members must stay with various town folk, since there is no hotel, and in the process, the Israeli town residents and the Egyptian band members get to know one another.

That's it.

And yet, in getting to know one another and communicating as strangers, they end up finding meaning through each other. And that's kind of the profound part to me.

  • Many parts of the show are in Arabic and Hebrew. This is the part that really reminded me of The Light in the Piazza, which is told much in Italian with no translation. Same here.

Because the Egyptians do not speak Hebrew and the Israelis do not speak Arabic, they speak to each other in English, and it is when they do, that we the audience fully understand them.

And yet, I think one of the things I found so wonderful about the show was the reinforcement of the idea of how music and movement are universal languages. Which is also I think what makes this story a good one to adapt into a musical. So many times these characters have difficulty communicating with one another and even understanding each other on a deeper, cultural level, but music and movement are ways they connect when words fail. I love that idea so much.

I can't tell you how many times in life music or dance has moved me in a way that words alone cannot always do. I found many of those moments in this show.

  • An audience member really has to focus and listen.

This is not one of those "leave-your-brain-at-the-door-and-just-have-a-good-time" shows. And there is certainly a place for shows like that. I even like shows like that. But Mamma Mia this is not.

Every character has an accent. Sometimes they are not speaking in English. The music are not necessarily the catchy tunes that you will hum leaving the theater. One really has to listen. And especially for me, who was not familiar with the score or lyrics at all, I had to focus to make sure I caught everything. And I know I didn't. And I plan on re-listening to the score and reading the lyrics to deepen my understanding of the show.

But I had to concentrate a lot to make sure I was following everything. I know the couple next to me was not following everything. I know there were others in the crowd who weren't following everything. And I'm sure there were some who didn't want to do the work to follow everything.

In this Tik Tok, binge-watching, instant-gratification age, I am not surprised that people don't want to really listen, concentrate, and focus. And yet, it seems to me that part of the message of the musical is the necessity to focus and really communicate in order to see each other. We'd rather look at our smart phones instead of each other or talk past each other rather than to each other. This musical required patience, focus, listening, and surrender.

  • The structure of the music was kind of unorthodox. It definitely was not your typical commercial, blockbuster-type musical.

No big song and dance numbers. The music was heavily influenced by Middle-Eastern sounds and in at least one case, jazz. Several times it was just the band playing almost as atmosphere. Many of these times were just one band member playing a solo piece. This musical was in no rush to get from point A to Z, and the music reflected that. One piece was in Arabic with no translation, and one of the Israeli characters commented on what it might mean.

I didn't leave the theater humming anything, yet the music was so beautiful and intensely moving to me. But this was no Jerry Herman-Rodgers and Hammerstein piece. David Yazbek, who also composed Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Full Monty, and our next show at the Smith Center, Tootsie, but The Band's Visit was such a unique score to me.

The closing song before curtain call was a very simple-sounding yet emotionally resonant piece, and then the band finished out the show with an instrumental. It was all kind of weird, but in the very best of ways.

Oh, and the orchestra was the on-stage band. They played all the instruments on stage as the characters they were playing, and unlike even other shows I've seen with on-stage bands, this band freely moved about from scene to scene.

So I get that this musical might not be everybody's cup of tea, just as I don't think the film is everybody's cup of tea. But it was so abundantly my cup of tea.

Here are a few things I loved:

  • The set.

A turntable was used, but it still felt so simple and minimal. About a minute into the show, a technical problem occurred, and the show had to be delayed about four or five minutes. I turned to Isaias and said, "If they cancel the show, so help me..." because this was the one show this season I was excited to see. But then the technical issue was fixed and the show went on flawlessly. And yet although it certainly was a very technical show, it never seemed technical. No flying helicopters, falling chandeliers, elaborate costume changes, showy dance numbers, or anything of the sort.

It almost felt like a series of vignettes connected by the very simple plot of a band being stranded in a town. Although there were set pieces, it almost felt like the environment was being hinted at rather than explicitly displayed. But that isn't really true. There were furniture and props and backdrops, all delivered via the turntable. But it felt much simpler and minimal than it probably actually was.

  • It was unique and different.

I was not impressed with the offerings this season at the Smith Center. We have season tickets, but it felt like the pandemic gave us such ordinary offerings: Cats (really?), An Officer and A Gentleman (double really?), A Christmas Carol and My Fair Lady (been there, done that), and Tootsie. The Band's Visit honestly was the only one I even wanted to see, and it did not disappoint. It was so different than anything I have seen in some time. Certainly it was one of the most unique musicals I have ever seen.

  • It was unexpected and surprising.

I actually had few expectations other than I was hoping I would like it. But it just blew me away. It was so unusual, yet so good.

  • It was theatrical.

And when I say theatrical, I mean it used theatrical devices in what felt like a brand new way even though it used many of the same devices theatre has been using for centuries. But it felt new, and it made me excited. It is productions like these that make me enthusiastic about acting and theatre. Seeing stuff like this makes me excited about what theatre can accomplish.

  • It was culturally different than what I am used to.

It challenged me in a good way. Middle-Eastern music is not my go-to music. This wasn't your classic musical theatre score nor was it pop or standards. It was unlike what I am used to, but I loved it.

  • The cast was phenomenal. Great acting, beautiful singing, but also beautiful in a way that felt nontraditional as far as the types of voices Broadway productions sometimes cast. Just unique but nearly flawless. Moving.

  • There were some brilliant acting moments.

One moment that struck both Isaias and me was when one character cried this deep, guttural cry that felt so real and appropriate. It felt like it came from the inner recesses of her very soul, and I believed it. Amazing moment.

  • I felt my mom quite profoundly this evening.

Truth be told, I do not think my mom would have liked this show. I think she would have had a hard time understanding what was being said and might have even been bored or frustrated by it. She would have thought the performers did a good job and that they sang well, but it would not have been her type of musical, whereas it was very much mine.

But a character played "My Funny Valentine" on the trumpet, and that was one of my mom's very favorite songs. And although she might not have enjoyed the show on the whole, I felt her so strongly in that moment it was like she was with me. And she definitely would have loved that moment. It made me cry.

  • I loved what the show had to say.

Finding meaning, really seeing each other, bridging cultural divides, listening communicating, finding it sometimes easier telling a stranger about your darkest secrets, spoken language vs. other forms of communication that might be more universal, the power of simplicity, etc.

  • That someone took a chance on something that didn't feel commercial and yet has ended up doing well.

It gives me faith. Sometimes the dumbing down of America feels me with dread. It's gratifying to see a smart show for a change. I know there were people tonight who didn't get or appreciate what they saw the way I did, but I sure would love to see more stuff like this even if they probably wouldn't.

Anyway, I was just blown out of the water with this piece. I think I know I really resonate with someone else if they like The Band's Visit, too. That's the type of person I can have a deep, meaningful conversation with. Anyway, if you get the opportunity, go see it. You may not like it. But I sure did.

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