It hasn’t been a great year for new musicals; only one — Dear Evan Hansen — made my list of the top ten theatrical productions of 2016. Several others were great in part: the design of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812; the showbiz wow of the first act of Shuffle Along. A few, like Waitress, even proved to be commercial successes. But as I thought about what performers in musicals had been singing at me since January, very little of it seemed to convey the excitement and importance of what performers in plays, especially Off Broadway plays, had been saying to me during the same period. Was the musical as a form entering one of its periodic lulls? Had Hamilton sucked so much air out of the room that no other musical could catch its breath? Or were there just not enough new musicals to choose from in a genre where the odds of greatness seem to hover around one in 50?
But my top-ten list was compiled before I saw The Band’s Visit, the terrific and wistful new show (songs by David Yazbek, book by Itamar Moses) opening tonight at the Atlantic. Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, by Eran Kolirin, it tells a story that would typically be considered too discursive and delicate for an American musical. In 1996, the seven members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra come from Egypt to play at the opening of an Arab Culture Center in the Israeli city of Petah Tikvah, near Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, because they speak no Hebrew and their English is thickly accented, the men in their pale-blue Sergeant Pepper uniforms (which they think of as Michael Jackson outfits) wind up by accident in Bet Hatikvah, a (fictional) town in the middle of the southern desert. We are introduced to this Negev Bumfuck in a typically laid-back, hilarious Yazbek number called “Waiting”: “Pick a sandhill of your choosing / Take some bricks that no one’s using / Build some buildings, put some Jews in / Then, blah, blah, blah.” (The accents, both Israeli and Egyptian, give Yazbek the rhyming wiggle-room he thrives on.)
Awkwardly at first, the locals accommodate their visitors, who are forced to spend the night in this town with no hotels. Tewfiq and Haled — the conductor and the trumpet player — stay with Dina, a former dancer who runs a café; Camal and Simon, violin and clarinet, stay with feckless Itzik and his overworked wife, Iris; the others are farmed out elsewhere. Gradually the hosts and guests find common ground in music: They may not know one another’s language, but they all know “Summertime.” And gradually the music leads them, as music does, even further. Over dinner with Dina, Tewfiq, a widower who carries sadness around with him like an instrument, shares some of it; Haled helps a nudnik named Papi make moves on a girl at the roller-skating rink. While Itzik and Iris fight, Simon plays the clarinet to lull their baby. Another man waits by a payphone for a call from his distant girlfriend. That’s about it: Not much, and yet everything that can happen, happens.
Open-ended to the point of shagginess, The Band’s Visit doesn’t feel like any musical ever. Certainly it situates itself at the opposite extreme of what a musical can be from Dear Evan Hansen, whose every moment is honed to a sharp point and whose themes are bound in muscular bundles. (I don’t mean that as an insult; there are many kinds of fine musicals.) Moses’s book, following the original screenplay, takes its shape and tone from the difficulty of communication built into the plot and from the habit of repression of people who have endured too much. Drawing more on the current Off Broadway style of suggestion than the Broadway style of explanation, it locates its conflicts almost exclusively beneath the plot, not in it. Dina’s longing for some kind of romance in her life is obliquely expressed, for instance, in a song about old Egyptian movies starring Umm Kulthum and Omar Sharif. Tewfiq’s own buried emotions come forth in a song sung entirely in Arabic. And where a musical workshop would tell you the love ballad goes, this musical withholds it. That’s because life does, too.
Not that Yazbek’s songs aren’t ecstatic when he wants them to be. The eleven o’clock number in this 90-minute musical is a knockout called “Answer Me,” sung, naturally, by the guy waiting for the phone. For all of Yazbek’s smart-aleck wit — almost no one today can write a comedy number like him — he is vastly underrated for the expressiveness of his melodies, which tumble through tonalities like a Slinky on a keyboard. And while his scores for The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown have all credibly reflected their milieus (steel town, Riviera, Madrid), The Band’s Visit, with its mix of Israeli and Arabic modes, its klezmer clarinets and plangent lutelike oud, represents a high-water mark in his pairing of sound and scene. (Perhaps it doesn’t hurt that he is of both Jewish and Arab descent.) The Band’s Visit not only doesn’t sound like anything else he’s written, but (especially in Jamshied Sharifi’s pungent orchestrations) it doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve heard.
It’s only fitting, then, that the production, directed by never-do-anything-twice David Cromer, unfolds idiosyncratically, in its own good time. (Life in Bet Hatikvah is not exactly crackling with activity.) Cromer gives us a stage — the set is by Scott Pask — that is often mostly empty; characters seem to wait in corners for something, perhaps their next scene, to happen. Nor does he force the cast into familiar rhythms and obvious “moments,” a freedom that the leading actors exploit brilliantly in establishing their characters’ humanity. Tony Shalhoub, as Tewfiq, has never been more achingly dignified and painfully self-contained; the stunning Katrina Lenk, as Dina, matches him in her last-chance brazenness. Cromer’s way of building the scenes between them to play on an audience’s expectations of romance is only a means of expressing an inevitable truth about the possibility, and impossibility, of love between any two people.
Not one word is devoted to the larger, political implications of that idea. We know without being told that the Egyptians and the Israelis, even 17 years after the peace treaty between them, are objects of mutual suspicion. That suspicion can be the other side of the coin of interest is demonstrated without comment. (Haled flirts with any pretty Israeli girl he can — even, or perhaps especially, the soldiers.) If The Band’s Visit has a theme, it’s the one voiced in “Answer Me”: “My ears are thirsty for your voice.” In other words, we must talk.
But really it’s too subtle for those other words, or perhaps, some may feel, too ragged. Though song buttons and take-home nostrums are not its idiom, it could nevertheless use some cleanup work around the edges. (Some scenes just peter out; some scene changes leave you wondering where to look.) Perfect is the wrong word for such a rangy, unusual musical, but it’ll just have to do.
The Band’s Visit is at the Atlantic Theater through January 1.