“The Band’s Visit” has been lauded as the breakout production of the 2017 Broadway season, and although it was early on described as this season’s “Hamilton” or “Dear Evan Hansen,” such comparisons give the wrong impression. Where the 2015 and 2016 hits are thrilling, loud and full of energy, “The Band’s Visit,” which tells the story of what happens when an Egyptian band visiting Israel to perform gets lost and ends up in a random small town, is subtle, poignant and stirs emotions quietly.
“I loved that the story was just about people, having a day,” says actor Katrina Lenk, who stars in the production alongside Tony Shalhoub and Ari’el Stachel. “The characters are all so deep and instantly knowable — watching the film or reading the script these were clearly people that I didn’t know but I felt like ‘These characters, I’ve been them,’ or ‘This town, even though I’ve never been there, it feels very familiar — like anywhere, USA.’”
The cast visited Yeruham, the town in Israel where the play is set, back in August. “It was a quick trip but we got to hang out with the writer and director of the original movie, we did this massive tour of the desert, and we went to the town the show is based on,” Lenk says, adding that upon returning to the set, it now felt like “home.”
“On a fundamental level this is exploring topics that deal with my ancestry — my father was born in Israel, his family is from Yemen,” Stachel says of his immediate interest in the project. Beyond that, “it’s about love music and connection…things that resonate with me on a personal level.”
The show obviously deals with mingling of Israelis and Arabs, but the two actors feel the message is less political and more personal, speaking both about the “universal quality of music,” Stachel says, and the human spirit.
“I think if it’s political in any way it would be in the fact that it’s not political,” Lenk says. “Here are people from Egypt, here are people from Israel, and everything we know about that, but at the end of the day politics are not [discussed]; it’s just people. That would be how political it is — to just remind us all that no matter what your politics, you’re still just a person.”
“What upped the ante for me was that it was going to start changing the conversation and perception of Middle Eastern Americans,” Stachel says. “It’s about Middle Eastern people who at first glance might not coexist peacefully. We talk about this basic concept of humanity that supersedes the basic boundaries we try to create.”
Stachel is a native of Berkeley, Calif., and came to New York on a scholarship at New York University.
“I’ve been close to a lot of jobs that I haven’t gotten,” he says of his journey to Broadway (“The Band’s Visit” marks his debut).
His heritage might’ve worked to his advantage for this casting, but Stachel says he long believed being a Middle Eastern American actor would inhibit him.
“I really truly did not believe it was possible,” he says, again referencing that his father is Yemeni Israeli. “I didn’t know if that dream could come true.”