“The Band’s Visit”: Is “Nice” Enough?

I don’t want to say anything bad or disrespectful about The Band’s Visit, the new musical that has just opened on Broadway after an acclaimed off-Broadway run last winter. Adapted from a little 2007 film about an Egyptian police band that winds up, by mistake, stranded in a forlorn little Israeli town,  the show is nice. The people in it are all nice. The actors (especially Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub) do a nice job, as does director David Cromer. David Yazbek’s score is maybe a little better than nice — warm, tuneful, with an authentic middle Eastern flavor. I’m just not sure that’s enough to justify all the raves — including a Best Musical of the Year award from my colleagues in the New York Drama Critics Circle.

Understated to a fault, it’s musical made up of vignettes — surprisingly similar to Come From Away, last season’s Tony-nominated musical about another small town invaded unexpectedly by foreigners. But that show had 9/11 to give it some oomph. In The Band’s Visit we get a long night’s journey into … well, not very much. The Egyptians have various encounters with the hospitable but bored townspeople, all of whom seem afflicted with some form of loneliness, romantic longing or spiritual disaffection. A married couple with a baby have grown apart. A young man stands by a pay phone waiting for his girlfriend to call. A cafe owner puts on her best dress and escorts the band’s leader for an evening of sightseeing and talk — reaching out for connection, then pulling back.

This just doesn’t strike me great material for a musical. I haven’t seen the Israeli film on which it is based, but I can guess that it has more anecdotal filigree, and the kind of quirky, laid-back charm that emerges more naturally on film than on a big Broadway stage. I wouldn’t steer anyone away from The Band’s Visit, which has touching moments and has been produced with much care and compassion. But keep your expectations in check.


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