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The Band’s Visit Review: Egyptian Police in the Israeli Desert, Making Music

The members of the creative team behind “The Band’s Visit,” a delightfully low-key musical starring a memorably paired Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, have taken a 2007 Israeli film that is off-beat, and supplied their own beat.

Click on any photograph by Ahron R. Foster, to see it enlarged

David Yazbek, best-known as the composer of the Broadway musicals “Dirty Rotten Scoundrel” and “The Fully Monty,” here has come up with a terrifically tuneful Middle Eastern-inflected score (the musical instruments used by the eight-member orchestra include the stringed oud and the percussive darbuka) that veers from witty to wistful, sweet to swinging.

Writer Itamar Moses (“The Fortress of Solitude“; “Back Back Back”) is faithful to the quirky story in the film about the unformed members of the Alexandria, Egypt Ceremonial Police Orchestra who have been invited to the Israeli city of Petah Tikva to perform at a new Arab Cultural Center, but wind up in the small, isolated (fictional) town of Bet Hatikva in the middle of the desert. “There is not Arab Center here,” one of the perennially bored residents explains to them. “Not Israeli Culture, not Arab, not culture at all.”

Moses, Yazbek and the show’s director David Cromer, whose triumphs include widely and wildly praised Off-Broadway productions of Our Town, Tribes, and The Effect, keep the deadpan drollery of the film, but also produce through the individual Israelis and Egyptians alike a collective portrait of yearning.

With the seven Egyptian musicians stranded in the wrong town until they can take a bus the next day, the local café owner, Dina (Katrina Lenk, in what should be a star-making performance), organizes the effort to put them up in different households. This results in three principal stories, not of culture clashes, but of cultural exchange, often lighthearted but always laced with sadness. Despite the small scale and credible nature of the interactions, they take on the feel of fable.

A married couple Iris and Itzik (Kristen Sieh and John Cariani) who no longer get along, and Iris’s father Avrum (Andrew Polk) who still mourns the death of his wife, put up Simon (Alok Tewari), the visiting clarinetist. While his hosts argue in the other room, Simon plays his unfinished concerto to lull their baby to sleep.

The band’s Lothario, the trumpeter Haled (a splendidly and hilariously sexy Ari’el Stachel), who is always ready with a pick-up line, helps the neurotically shy Papi (Daniel David Stewart) make the necessary overtures towards a girl at the local roller skating rink. Even Haled’s bright flirtatiousness is lined with shadow; his family will soon force him into an arranged marriage.

The story that gets the most attention is that between Tewfiq the dignified/stuffed shirt conductor and commander of the orchestra (Tony Shalhoub giving his usual pitch perfect performance), and Dina, sexy and cynical and provincial all at once. There are some lovely moments between them, such as his teaching her how to conduct. As the night proceeds, it becomes clear how much their lives are circumscribed by their sorrows and regrets.

The cast of 14 (several of whom are also in the orchestra), who swirl around on Scott Pask’s deliberately barren set, are employed in other stories as well — small, often odd, but telling moments. There is the man who waits patiently each and every night by the town’s telephone booth for his far-away girlfriend to call him. There is a machine-gun toting roller rink guard who barks at Haled, refusing to let him enter, until Papi slips in between them, and says in Hebrew: “Hey, it’s okay, he is a friend of mine, okay?” The tensions between Arabs and Israelis are thus acknowledged, like everything else in “The Band’s Visit,” in an understated way, delivering no artificial happiness but suggesting reasons to be hopeful.

 

The Band’s Visit

Atlantic Theater

Book by Itamar Moses, based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin; Music and lyrics by David Yazbek; Directed by David Cromer

Sets by Scott Pask, costumes by Sarah Laux, choreography by Patrick McCollum, lights by Tyler Micoleau, projectons design by Maya Cirrocchi

Cast: George Abud, Bill Army, John Cariani, Katrina Lenk, Erik Liberman, Andrew Polk, Rachel Prather, Jonathan Raviv, Sharone Sayegh Tony Shalhoub, Kristen Sieh, Ariel Stachel, Daniel David Stewart and Alok Tewari

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Tickets: $91.50 – $111.50

The Band’s Visit is scheduled to run through January 1, 2017. It’ll be surprising if it’s not extended.

Update: Extended to January 8

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About New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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