Marching seductively to its own enchanting drummer, "The Band's Visit" may prove to be the best original musical of the new Broadway season. It's too early to remove the qualifying words from that statement — we still have the likes of Disney's forthcoming stage version of "Frozen," among others, to consider. But it's not incautious to say that this droll, intimate show, with a luscious score by David Yazbek and the critical wind already at its back, is the most intriguing musical of the New York fall.
Its world-premiere engagement last year by off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company revealed its offbeat charm — a Mediterranean fish-out-of-water comedy. Based on a 2007 movie of the same title by Israeli director Eran Kolirin, "The Band's Visit" is a funny and affecting story of the establishment of accidental international relations. An Egyptian military band has been invited to perform in the Israeli town of Petah Tikvah, near Tel Aviv, but a travel-booking error sends the musicians to a dusty town of similar-sounding name in the Negev Desert, a backwater in which the only thing drier than the earth is the torpor of its citizens.
The mistake is of barely measurable consequence, except to this bewildered corps of Egyptian band members and the equally befuddled Israelis who uncertainly welcome them into their midst. Like "Come From Away," the hit musical about a Canadian town that cares for thousands of stranded travelers after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks shut down U.S. airspace, "The Band's Visit" is about the unexpectedly powerful electricity sparked when planets collide. Except in this musical, with a sharp book by Itamar Moses to go with Yazbek's Middle Eastern-accented music and lyrics, there's an added wistful dimension, of people who haven't been able to cross over and fully share one another's joy and pain.
The director, David Cromer, and much of the cast, led by Tony Shalhoub as the courtly band director, and Katrina Lenk, playing an Israeli woman stifled by an emotionally parched existence, transfer from the Atlantic production that begins performances Oct. 7 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. John Cariani and Ari'el Stachel are among other returning members of a fine ensemble that is being put through its paces on Scott Pask's turntable set by choreographer Patrick McCollum.
Expectations are also high for a new drama taking up residence in October in Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont Theater. The play goes by a potentially disconcerting title — "Junk" — but it has an estimable pedigree. The author is Ayad Akhtar, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning "Disgraced" recounted the predicament of a high-powered Muslim American lawyer forced to confront the guilt and compromises of assimilating into a culture that never totally accepts him.
In "Junk," Akhtar turns his attention to another chapter in the history of morally murky, highflying America: the era of the hostile corporate takeovers that are so identified with the 1980s, a time powered by the questionable fuel of high-risk junk bonds and the mercantile cowboys who used them to make fortunes off flagging industries. "Brisk, lucid and at times highly suspenseful" is how Charles McNulty, theater critic for the Los Angeles Times, described the sprawling drama at its world premiere a year ago at the La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California.
Steven Pasquale plays the central character of Robert Merkin, a fictional figure who has been likened to onetime junk bond king Michael Milken, the financier who pleaded guilty in 1990 and went to prison for financial crimes. The 17-person cast, shepherded by director Doug Hughes, also includes Matthew Saldivar, Miriam Silverman, Michael Siberry and Joey Slotnick. Arriving at a time when politicians in Washington are poised to give massive tax breaks to corporate America, Akhtar's "Junk" could offer a treasure trove of valuable lessons.
The Band's Visit, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Itamar Moses. Directed by David Cromer. $59-$175, Performances begin Oct. 7 at Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York.
Junk, by Ayad Akhtar. Directed by Doug Hughes. $107-$199. Performances begin Oct. 5 at Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 W. 65th St., New York. For both shows, visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.
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