Tony Award winning musical The Band’s Visit casts Israel in a very positive life

By Alexandra Cohen

NEW YORK BROADWAY UPDATE:  There are many reasons to travel to New York City, but one most unique to the city’s soul is the extensive list of amazing Broadway musicals found at the heart of Times Square.  Let me recommend, in particular, the 10-time Tony Award-winning Best Musical, The Band’s Visit. (www.thebandsvisitmusical.com).

Playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street), the production recently welcomed award-winning Israeli actor Sasson Gabay to the company in his Broadway debut. He is reprising the character he created in the 2007 film on which the musical is based.

Following the Tony Awards on June 10th, The Band’s Visit is now tied as the third most Tony Award-winning show in history and is one of only three shows in Broadway history to have won the “Big Six” awards (Best Musical, Best Actor—Tony Shalhoub, Best Actress—Katrina Lenk, Direction, Book, and Score). Thus far, due to popular demand, the show has been extended through June 2019, with the potential to extend even more.

The Band’s Visit opened on November 9 after being developed by a multi-award-winning team: music and lyrics by David Yazbek, whose previous credits include Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Full Monty, book by Itamar Moses, and direction by David Cromer.

As the musical begins, a series of well-intentioned mistakes land an Egyptian Police Band in a sleepy and remote village in the middle of the Israeli desert, which its inhabitants label as “boring” and “bland”.  One of the central characters, Dina (played with great magnetism by Tony Award-winner Katrina Lenk), describes the mood of her town best in the opening number, as “looking out into the distance even though you know the view is never going to change”

With no bus until morning and no hotel in sight, the band are taken in by the locals for one night that will in some way or another, change all of their lives. The Band’s Visit celebrates the deeply human ways in which music, longing and laughter can connect us all.

Although I must say that I expected this show to be quite serious in nature, I was pleasantly surprised by the simultaneous comic undertones. Although the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra are meant to perform at the Arabic cultural center in Petah Tikvah, Israel, a member of the band with poor English skills accidentally sends them to the similarly pronounced destination of Bet Hatikvah “with a B”, eliciting many laughs from the audience.

Yes, quite often it is the creative and witty lyrics that allow for laughter, including a particular line of song in which the words

“awful” and “falafel” were used in a rhyme. However, as the connections between the Israeli locals and Egyptian visitors are forged, the story becomes unexpectedly moving. Although they are different, as shown in certain moments by the characters speaking their respective languages rather than English, they are also in many ways the same, and if that is not a universal message that this world needs, then I do not know what is.

It is rare to see a story like this on the Broadway stage. When reading through the Playbill prior to the show, I noticed many proud Israeli actors in the cast, one of which is actor Ari’el Stachel, who plays Haled and won a Tony Award for his portrayal this year.

At the telecast, when presented with his award, he had a few words to say. “For so many years of my life I pretended I was not a Middle Eastern person,” he said. He thanked the creators of the show “for being courageous for telling a small story about Arabs and Israelis getting along at a time that we need that more than ever”.

He continued on to say: “I am part of a cast of actors who never believed that they’d be able to portray their own races, and we’re doing that.”

The Original Broadway Cast Recording is now available from Ghostlight Records, which you can download online.

The North American Tour of The Band’s Visit will launch in Providence, Rhode Island in June 2019. Exact dates and additional cities will be announced at a later date.  As for international plans, producer Oren Wolf has said in interviews that there have naturally been some conversations about Israel. “I’m very interested in looking at some of the Middle Eastern markets,” he noted. ” It’s such a delicate show. I’ve described it like a piece of Kleenex that gets wet, so one pebble too many and it breaks. I just have to figure out the most delicate way to go into those other markets and if there’s a compelling reason to do it. If there is, I’ll be eager to roll up my sleeves and make it happen.”

Tickets ($49 – $169, including the $2 facility fee) are available at telecharge.com, 212.239.6200, or at the Barrymore Theatre box office (243 West 47th Street). For groups of 10 or more, please contact Broadway Inbound at broadwayinbound.com or 866.302.0995.

The performance schedule for THE BAND’S VISIT is: Tuesday – Thursday at 7pm; Friday & Saturday at 8pm; with matinees at 2pm on Wednesday & Saturday; Sunday at 3pm.

Info: www.TheBandsVisitMusical.com.

WHERE TO STAY:  I absolutely love the historic Algonquin Hotel (www.algonquinhotel.com), which for many years was Jewish-owned. There was simply no other option when I booked this trip many months ago.

Located in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, this jewel of historic New York hotels commands 44th Street near 6th Avenue, just a short walk of a block and a half away from Times Square.

The Algonquin first opened its doors in 1902. Today, it is part of the Marriott chain’s Autograph Collection, an evolving ensemble of strikingly independent hotels. Each destination has been selected for its quality, bold originality, rich character, and uncommon details. The result is an array of properties that is nothing less than unique. The Algonquin Hotel was the first New York City property to become a part of the collection.   

For 100 years, the Algonquin has been greeting and lodging the country’s most prominent writers and literary personalities, as well as the leading figures of the American stage. The hotel is best known, perhaps, for the members of the Round Table, a group of luminaries who had in common both the ability to fire blazing witticisms and to withstand being on the receiving end of them.

After World War I, Vanity Fair writers and Algonquin regulars Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood began lunching at the Algonquin. Though society columns referred to them as the Algonquin Round Table, they called themselves the Vicious Circle. “By force of character,” observed drama critic Brooks Atkinson, “they changed the nature of American comedy and established the tastes of a new period in the arts and theatre.”

Each of the 181 rooms and 25 suites features a comfortable well-lit work desk, as well as complimentary Wi-Fi.

When you enter the hotel, you come face to face with the casual Lobby Lounge, along with The Round Table Restaurant. Just to the left is the hotel’s trendy bar, aptly named The Blue Bar.

As a cat lover, I was of course excited to see Hamlet VIII, the two-year-old orange cat who calls The Algonquin his home. According to hotel executive assistant Alice De Almeida, he was originally a feral cat found in Long Island and brought to the Bide-a-wee shelter (the oldest shelter in the Big Apple), where the Algonquin then adopted him as their ownHe came to the hotel in July 2017 after their former cat, Matilda III, retired. “He is so friendly and loveable that people who never liked cats love him.” Alice says proudly. “He has great purrsonality!”

Hamlet has his own Twitter and Instagram accounts, as well as an email account.  “I take care of all his needs, front and back, vet visits and more,” says Alice.

Recently a group of feline fashion “mewdels” took to the runway (held safely in the arms of their owners) in one-of-a-kind outfits designed by certified animal fashion designer Ada Nieves, in celebration of Hamlet VIII The annual Celebration & Cat Fashion Show had as is theme “The Purring 20’s”, the time of the great authors and celebrities who frequented the hotel’s famous Round Table. It also marked the official party debut of Hamlet, the young American shorthair ginger cat who reigns over the front desk and observes from his own private treehouse, endearing himself to hotel guests and visitors alike, with warm greetings.

Highlights of the evening included: cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and desserts; the cat fashion show; a silent auction, and an on-site mobile adoption unit that was in front of the hotel that day. Additional funds were raised throughout the evening with raffle prizes, including a variety of pet products curated by the event’s co-chair, Pet Lifestyle Expert and author, Sandy Robins. All proceeds benefited the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals  Guests also got a look at advance copies of the new illustrated book, Hamlet – The Algonquin Cat, by Lesley Martini, with illustrations by Massimo Mongiardo, scheduled for release in September.

Based on the timeline of a book written by the hotel’s first general manager, the hotel is now proud to say that the lineage of The Algonquin Cat dates back to the early 1920s. Two days after this first cat, Billy, passed, another stray cat wandered into the hotel and The Algonquin welcomed Rusty. The famous classical actor, John Barrymore, best known for playing Hamlet on stage, was a resident at the time in the early 1930s, and Rusty was renamed Hamlet in his honor. The lineage thus far now includes eight Hamlets and three Matildas. Each cat that has reigned at The Algonquin has been a rescue.

The hotel’s executive chef cooks Hamlet special meals on holidays. He receives fan mail and gifts constantly from around the world. He has recently been the subject of a painting that hangs above the Front Desk, by New York artist Marcus Pierno. Hamlet can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  He can also be reached via email: hamletalgonquincat@algonquinhotel.com.

In the book The Algonquin Kid: Adventures Growing Up In New York’s Legendary Hotel, author Michael Colby tells the story about his grandparents Mary and Ben Bodne, who built this legendary landmark. Southern Jews, they owned the hotel from 1946 to 1987. As a kid, Colby and siblings visited their grandparents every weekend. Colby took up permanent residence in the hotel at the age of 18 and made his way into the theater world as a librettist, composer and lyricist. His musical, Charlotte Sweet, an all-sung, all-rhymed original musical with libretto by Colby and music by Gerald Jay Markoe, received three Drama Desk Award nominations and was critically lauded as “adorable, strange and delectable” by the New York Times.

The Algonquin, its bar and restaurant, have easy access for wheelchairs from the street. There is valet parking. The hotel has six ADA rooms and one ADA suite. There are two elevators. Staff are very helpful and friendly.

WHERE TO DINE:  Over the past year, I have been fortunate to experience the extraordinary cuisine of master chef Geoffrey Zakarian at two of his restaurants: Georgie at the Montage Beverly Hills, and Point Royal at the Diplomat Resort in Hollywood, Florida. When looking for a place to dine near Times Square, I was pleasantly surprised to find another one of his restaurants, The Lambs Club, only a block away from our hotel.

Located at 132 West 44th Street, The Lambs Club offers Zakarian’smodern approach to American cuisine with distinct ingredients, highly seasonal menus, and a signature approach to hospitality.

Zakarian and his talented culinary team marry their passion for food with their classical training to deliver exceptional dining experiences, whether it is a casual burger in The Bar or the sought-after Delmonico Steak in the main dining room. A team of skilled chefs put forth daily breakfast, lunch, and dinner, offering guests dishes composed with the most seasonal and highest quality ingredients.  Wine Director A.J. Ojeda-Pons oversees a wine list that has secured Wine Spectator’s coveted “Two Glasses” distinction in their Restaurant Awards, where the restaurant is highlighted as one of the nation’s best. The World of Fine Wine quickly followed suit, presenting the restaurant with “Two Stars” in their World’s Best Wine List. On the cocktail list, guests will find both classic and innovative cocktails, created with fresh ingredients and house-made infusions – a true revival of the craft of cocktailing.

Inside The Lambs Club, guests are transported from the hustle and bustle of Broadway to the welcoming oases of the restaurant’s many one-of-a-kind spaces. The distinguished history that connects the landmark building to the Great White Way is prominently displayed in the main dining room, which boasts an enormous 18th-century fireplace, a gift from Architect Stanford White.

We very much enjoyed our meal at the 90-seat restaurant. From a house-smoked pastrami sandwich for lunch and a Creekstone 28-day, dry-aged Delmonico steak at supper, the menus here touch all of the bases. Situated just a block from Times Square, the Lambs Club provides the perfect setting for a pre- or post-theater bite, or even just an escape from the hustle and bustle.

Throughout a career spanning 30 years, Zakarian has made his mark as a chef-restaurateur known for his sophisticated taste and signature style. An accomplished chef, host and culinary consultant, Zakarian has presided over some of the country’s top kitchens, traveling the world for new inspiration in a lifelong effort to deliver paramount hospitality experiences. He opened The Lambs Club in 2010 with his wife Margaret and partner David Rabin, a noted Jewish businessman.

For reservations call 212.997.5262 or email reservations@thelambsclub.com