The Band’s Visit continues at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, New York until 8 January.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
An Egyptian musician plays a plaintive melody on his clarinet to calm an Israeli baby who’s been crying in his crib. His music also brings together in tears the baby’s mother and father who have been at odds with one another.
The scene is one of the several affecting moments that are guaranteed to linger in your memory long after viewing The Band’s Visit, the captivating new musical being presented Off-Broadway by the Atlantic Theater Company.
The show is based on a well-received 2007 Israeli movie, written and directed by Eran Kolirin. Under the sensitive direction of David Cromer, the script by Itamar Moses comes instantly alive, shifting easily from comedy to heart-clutching poignancy.
David Yazbek’s glorious score, filled with expressive lyrics and vibrant with the sinuous melody lines and emphatic rhythms of Arab music, is the touchstone that – along with an equally glorious company of actors and musicians – brings both authenticity and grandeur to the proceedings.
The story deals with a group of musicians from Egypt, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, who come to Israel to play at the initiation ceremony for an Arab Culture Centre in the city named Petah Tikva.
Through a misunderstanding in buying their bus tickets, they wind up in the small, desert town of Bet Hatikva. (Scott Pask’s set design and Tyler Micoleau’s lighting capture the bleakness of the surroundings in poetic fashion.)
With no bus to their proper destination until the next day, the musicians are invited to spend the night with the locals, and the series of interactions that follow are a thrilling validation of the human connections that can take place, even between these citizens of cultures that seem to be in perpetual conflict.
There is no talk of politics and there is only one brief moment when a security guard threatens one of the musicians. Nothing momentous happens on the surface, but the people of Bet Hatikva and their visitors move to an ineffable epiphany of their basic humanity.
Among the residents of Bet Hatikva we get to know, there is Dina, the owner of a small cafe. With her husband long gone, she has grown cynical over the years, but still retains an innate elegance and perceptible allure, all wonderfully apparent in the portrayal of Katrina Lenk.
Dina finds herself attracted to the orchestra’s very formal, very reserved conductor, Tewfiq. He is, we learn, a man who harbours private tragedy, and Tony Shalhoub’s grand performance, complete with Egyptian accent, lets us sympathise with him in spite of his stuffy demeanor.
Tewfiq’s depth of spirit awakens in Dina something she has been longing for – to feel something different. They have a dinner in a simple restaurant, and Dina, in song, relates how she loved as a child to watch romantic Egyptian movies – movies with Omar Sharif – when she was a child.
Later as they sit in the town’s forlorn park, Dina tries to fathom what is happening to her. “I don’t know what I feel and I don’t know what I know. All I know is I feel something different,” Dina sings in a rapturous interior monologue, while Tewfiq offers counterpoint with a lilting Arab song.
It is in such moments that Yazbek’s score fulfils one of the basic tenets of musical theatre: move the characters into song when spoken words can no longer do the job.
Elsewhere in the night, the aforementioned clarinetist, Simon (Alok Tewari) and another musician, Camel (George Abud), are the guests of the Israeli couple, Itzik (John Cariani) and Iris (Kristen Sieh).
When Iris’ father, Avrum (Andrew Polk), in after-dinner talk, relates that he too is a musician, a violinist, he goes on to describe how he first met his wife, while playing at a dance. It moves into a joyous celebration of kindred spirits, as Camel, Simon and Itzik join Avrum in re-enacting the scene in animated song and dance. (Patrick McCollum is the choreographer.)
Meanwhile, there’s a still lighter moment at the roller-skating rink that provides the town’s rare nightlife diversion. The Egyptian trumpeter, the unstoppably gregarious Haled (Ari’el Stachel), instructs the chronically shy fellow who works at Dina’s cafe, Papi (Daniel David Stewart), how to get affectionate with his gloomy-appearing blind date. And it works.
Throughout the evening, we see the young man identified simply as the telephone guy (Erik Liberman), standing patiently by the town’s street payphone. He waits there nightly for a call from his distant girlfriend. He sings of his longing for an answer, and when that call finally comes, he is joined by the rest of the company in a moving chorale of universal yearning for just one other soul.
With the morning, the band leaves the town. And Dina, addressing the audience, repeats the lines that were projected on the front scrim of the set at the show’s start: “Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel, from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”
But, of course, we have seen a lot happen. People have come together at least for a night, and the potential for peace has been demonstrated with more potency than in a briefcase full of diplomatic proposals. And to celebrate, the company gathers on stage for a rousing instrumental conclusion. It sends us out in a good, perhaps even hopeful, mood about our turbulent world.