We meet the Israelis, kind of dawdling through their long, humdrum days, when the sing the opener literally about how they are waiting, just waiting, whether for something new and strange (they all want some strange) to come along, or just for the sky to go about changing its color. About how they stare into the distance expecting what they see to change but knowing that it never will. Luckily, the something new they dream about does come around to jolt their routine, and they are happy to feed and house the lost Egyptian musicians in their homes. Were people still nice and hospitable in the ‘90s? Maybe Israelis were? This show is so good it will make everyone love Jews! Maybe not everyone, America is forked, but all the good people will love Jews. Anyway the villagers sing a few funny-sad-sarcastic songs about how nothing happens there and how time just passes and isn’t that sooo great. I love the line “Sometimes time is an ocean/This sofa is my boat and I’m just drifting right along.” I mean sure this might be happening in the Negev but show me one person in America who hasn’t had that exact thought, albeit much less poetic I’m sure, at some point? That’s why this show is so good and so beloved already – it doesn’t matter that it’s about specific people in a specific place; it’s genuinely just reflecting basic humanity.
And that basic humanity includes the yearning to connect with others, in any way – romantically, with friends, with family, as a parent, everything. The visitors want to find this connection, the villagers want to find this connection. John Cariani, that lovable nerd from “Something Rotten”, plays an unhappy husband and new father who wants his marriage to be happier so they can raise their child better. He is adorably goofy, like with his parts in “Welcome to Nowhere”, but also brings such sad hope in “Izik’s Lullaby”. Adam Kantor plays a guy who literally spends the entire show standing at a payphone, pathetically and pitifully waiting for his girlfriend to call. He finally gets to show off with the closer “Answer Me”, which is one of the songs that will stay with you probably forever. I love both these guys and though they don’t have much to do (it’s a 90 minute show! and nothing happens!) they will break your heart. So will Ari’el Stachel as one of the musicians, making friends with the yoots in the town and teaching them about love. His song “Haled’s Song About Love” had me absolutely riveted, because his voice is out of this world. (It’s unfortunate that his is the only song on the cast recording (see below) that doesn’t show just how wonderful he is, but he still sounds great.)
But no one will break your heart like Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk. I know, SHALHOUB! Monk! He plays the captain of the Egyptians, okay that’s not really a thing, he’s the band leader and a colonel I think but captain of the Egyptians is a bonkers amazing title. His name is Tewfiq, which has replaced ‘toe-pick!’ as a fun thing my brother and I like to shout now. He’s polite enough, and reserved, which is hard to maintain when faced with the unabashed, relentless flowing energy of Katrina Lenk as the local café owner Dina. Lenk is spellbinding in this role, where she doesn’t have much to do in a traditional musical theatre sense but she makes every moment feel like it’s a universe condensed into a movement or a sound. One of the most mesmerizing performers in every aspect, she moves like a dancer while she sings, and sometimes you are more riveted by how she gestures with one graceful arm moving like a ribbon than by what she’s saying. But what she’s saying also feels like the most vital words ever put to music, like you need them in order to breathe. It’s a revelatory performance, completely mesmerizing. If you don’t believe me, go below and listen to ‘Omar Sharif’ and try not to repeat it 50 times in a row.
Dina and Tewfiq both recognize the opportunity the other presents – a complete stranger, sure, but someone they could spend their lives with, someone they didn’t think they’d have the opportunity to meet. It’s not like it’s love at first sight or something, it’s literally just like ‘hey you are…of age…and seem nice…and I have zero options.’ But it’s a beautiful kind of forlorn hope you feel arise. Dina, the unstoppable energy force, takes Tewfiq out to dinner and they eat and then they sit in a park and that’s the extent of what they do for most of the show, just sit and talk/sing and it’s not right how moving it is, it doesn’t make any sense that it can be so heartbreaking and exquisite but it is. They’re all trying to get through life, get through their day, and maybe find someone who cares that they’re getting through it. It’s all kind of sad and wonderful and at several points you’ll do what I did, which is look around and say, ‘this is happening on Broadway??!!’ Like I said, fragile magic.
Not just the short amount of time hinders the budding relationships - in friendships, mentorships, and maybe romantic ones - from flourishing. The reality that makes this show so special is also what hinders the characters from hoping for anything more than mediocre: they know that nothing really happens in life like you see in the movies. This is most evident in the song ‘Omar Sharif’, which will send chills down your spine the entire time Katrina sings it, or more accurately, the entire time the force of this music uses her as a vessel to convey its message in an otherworldly sort of way. There are a few too many reprises of it, but ‘Omar Sharif’ is an outstanding song and Katrina’s performance during it may win her the Tony, so far away but almost a certainty. She and Tewfiq create pure magic in the park with “Something Different”, and despite seeing this opportunity they’ve gotten, we all know and they know that nothing in their lives is really ever going to change. Katrina really steals the show, but it’s in this scene where Shalhoub shows you why he so famous. I really almost went onstage to give him a hug when he shared what keeps him from trying or hoping for anything great, and I didn’t even watch Monk.
I wanted more music, because what there is is truly wonderful and different – it is SO Israeli with that middle eastern rhythm and tones of klezmer music – but I realize that anything more would harm the delicate thing happening onstage. David Yazbek has created a masterpiece. And David Cromer’s masterful direction lets the play happen, seemingly on its own, unfolding so naturally that it feels like a giant body of water, moving ever so slowly with no way of stopping it, slowing it down or speeding it up. It just happens. There’s so much restraint on everyone’s part to keep the show small and subtle and natural, and that’s what makes the result so special. It’s like it’s happening in spite of itself, in spite of audience expectations, in spite of being in a Broadway theatre. (I bet this was even more magical when it was downtown in a small theatre, but apparently it still works.) That the unfolding of the action (what little there is) and the monotonous pace of these characters’ lives seems unfettered and unfussed and so natural is really a tribute to everyone involved, letting there be such a subtle result. Like they sing in the show, "nothing is as beautiful as something that you don't expect."
This show will stay with you after you’ve seen it, staking permanent space in your mind so you think about it constantly. There’s more silence happening on this stage than in any other theatrical experience I’ve ever seen or heard of. Pure silence. That’s weird right? A boring, often silent, quiet and still show? And yet that silence is revelatory. It’s not the kind that’s filled with unease, that makes you think okay can someone just do something? No, you’re content to just sit with them in that silence, to let it wash over you so you enjoy it all together, and to think with them about their nothing town and their predictable lives, and just, be. Just be in that space with these characters. With such a realistic portrayal of regular people in an unspecial town, silence and boredom and nothing is required. Normal life has those moments, and since realism and honesty is honored here, then the experience we witness is full of the still moments real life has. And that never really gets to happen in musical theatre. I’ll admit at some of those moments I was itching for a song to begin, but that wouldn’t have had the same effect. The restraint evident here is part of why it works. It languishes, it flows like a lazy river, and to tamper with that languidity would throw off the sense of realism, the sense that we are just getting a peek into actual people’s lives. And honestly I feel so lucky that I got to see into these people’s lives, and that this little show for grown-ups with absolutely zero commercial promise on paper is pretty much the best new musical of the season.
I went to the very last preview before opening night, so the cast may have just been extra excited to share the love, but everyone came out and took pictures and happily talked to everyone waiting. The crowd is different from usual, because it’s a lot of Israelis and Jews and Arabs who want to talk and it’s so freaking awesome. The title of this post has HABIBI!! in it because that’s the first thing I think of when I think about this show – the Israeli woman in the crowd at stagedoor who I think every time a cast member came out would scream HABIBI! in excitement. It was the best. It’s telling such an important story and it’s rare to get Middle Eastern people presented in a show where they are just average people with regular lives. So everyone is excited about that and you should be too.
It’s a short 90 minutes with no intermission. If you’re like me and you already have to pee just reading that, don’t run to the toilets as soon as it ends because the musicians play a little amazing concert at curtain call.
The most important information? The cast recording is now finished, and it’s streaming on soundcloud. Entertainment Weekly has it here for you to listen to for free RIGHT NOW. Like I said above, try not to repeat “Omar Sharif” over and over and over and over…