The Band's Visit: Israel comes to life on Broadway

‘The Band’s Visit’ swept the Tonys and provided a real glimpse of Israel to Broadway theatergoers.

"The Band's Visit" on Broadway (photo credit: MATTHEW MURPHY)
"The Band's Visit" on Broadway
(photo credit: MATTHEW MURPHY)
Before the curtains even rise on The Band’s Visit on Broadway, it is clear you’re in for a treat of Middle Eastern proportions.
Printed on the screen covering the stage is the same message in English, Hebrew and Arabic: “Please turn off your cell phones.”
The message is clear: turn off your phones, and forget you’re even still in New York City.
The Broadway musical – which swept the Tony Awards on Sunday night – is set in Beit Hatikva, a fictional small town in the Israeli desert based loosely on Yeroham. And for 90 minutes in a dark theater just steps away from Broadway, New Yorkers, tourists, expats – and visiting Israelis like me – were transported to Beit Hatikva.
I saw The Band’s Visit in late March during a trip to New York, scoring seats close to the stage inside the Ethel Barrymore Theater. Despite living in the heart of Israel, there was still something thrilling about watching a slice of life from the Jewish state come alive on one of the most famous stages in the world.
And the attention to detail throughout the show was perfectly on point, from the scenery to the accents and everything in between.
The show’s opening number even features one of the town’s residents lazily snacking from a bag of Bamba.
When the first scene opens, a eerily accurate signpost at Ben-Gurion Airport points to public transportation or baggage claim – in, of course, Hebrew, English and Arabic. Later, a dusty, old Israeli building in Beit Hatikva is emblazoned with the Hebrew words for cafe and restaurant.
The show, like the film, is set in the mid 1990s, and it was hard not to laugh at the accuracy of many of the costumes, including the “dad jeans,” the sandals and socks, the dated sweaters and the baggy shirts. It was clear much of the cast had worked hard on their Israeli or Egyptian accents, to varying levels of success.
The show is, of course, primarily in English, but there are Arabic and Hebrew sentences sprinkled throughout; enough to provide an excited jolt to speakers of the languages, but not too much to muddy the plot for everyone else.
The show’s genuine Israeli character was felt in each and every scene, and it is clear that the cast and crew worked hard to maintain the film’s authenticity. David Yazbek, who wrote the score, has a Lebanese father, and Itamar Moses, who wrote the book, was born to two Israeli parents. Katrina Lenk, who plays the lead role originated by the late Ronit Elkabetz, traveled to Israel before the show premiered – along with several other cast members – to get a feel for the country. And several other cast members – including Ar’iel Stachel, Etai Benson and Sharone Sayegh – have Israeli roots themselves.
Unlike Lenk – or myself – most people who see the show won’t get the opportunity to travel to Israel in their lifetimes. But for an hour and a half inside a Broadway theater, a dusty corner of Israel came to life in New York.