Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek
Reviewer: Mark Clegg
Admittedly the subject matter of this new musical isn’t exactly enticing. Based on the award-winning 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Alexandia Ceremonial Police Orchestra is booked to travel from Egypt to Israel to perform at an Arab cultural centre. However, due to a mix-up, they find themselves arriving in a one-horse-town in the middle of the Negev Desert. Awaiting transport, the eight men spend the night at the town’s café where they encounter the owner Dina… And that’s it. No other plot.
The show works along similar lines to A Chorus Line: bringing together a set of characters in an intimate setting and foregoing plot to explore their lives, thoughts, feelings and longings. In an age of blockbusting musicals featuring over-blown effects, and “hip and trendy” shows written to appeal to a younger crowd, it’s shockingly refreshing to encounter such a stripped-down idea involving a group of (mainly) middle-aged men.
What is perhaps more shocking is the identity of the composer. David Yazbek has quietly become a real treasure of Broadway musicals. As well as providing the score for the musical version of The Full Monty in 2000, Yazbek gave the world one of the wittiest shows of recent memory when Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opened in 2005. All of his previous projects have been wonderfully double-sided: brash yet classy, witty with a touch of the crass. The Band’s Visit, while displaying some raucousness (Dina’s Welcome to Nowhere) and a streak of humour (the brilliantly funny Papi Hears the Ocean) is almost completely removed from Yazbek’s previous works. The musical influences are Middle Eastern and Jewish and many of the tracks are instrumental (as the on-stage band rehearses and performs). These tracks are fast paced and brilliantly performed with a zest that is entirely infectious.
The songs (again like A Chorus Line) are divided out among the cast to allow characters their moment in the spotlight. The cast are all superb with Katrina Lenk dominating the recording as Dina, the loud café owner who hides a more tender side: her longing Something Different is a standout. Etal Benson provides some laughs as Papi and his duet with Ari’el Stachel (Helad’s Song About Love) is a great lounge number that is as close as the score comes to mainstream.
The recording suggests that the show may be more a play with songs as opposed to a full-blown musical. The headlining star of the show Tony Shalhoub (as bandleader Tewfiq) only appears briefly here and despite having 18 tracks, the CD clocks in at only 45 minutes in length. However, what little we are given is gold and it shines like a desert oasis. This band is definitely worth a repeat visit.