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Fans of David Yazbek’s musicals may be a little taken aback by his latest effort. Although, like his others, it adapts an acclaimed film, the show doesn’t feature the rollicking musical comedy of such previous efforts as The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Rather, The Band’s Visit is a delicately wistful and poignant chamber piece, its humor inducing chuckles rather than guffaws.
Nonetheless, this adaptation of the 2007 Israeli film by writer-director Eran Kolirin offers myriad pleasures in its world-premiere production at off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company. While its charms may be too subtle for some, the musical could easily find receptive audiences in a smaller Broadway house and on the regional circuit.
The book by Itamar Moses (Bach at Leipzig, The Fortress of Solitude) hews very closely to the film’s screenplay. It concerns the members of the Egyptian “Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra,” who inadvertently get stranded in a tiny, Israeli desert town. It seems the orchestra — its members clad in powder blue, military uniforms and led by the stiffly dignified Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub) — was supposed to go to another city with a similar name, where they are scheduled to perform the following day.
Upon their arrival, they encounter Dina (Katrina Lenk), the owner of a local cafe, and Tewfiq politely asks for directions to the Arab Cultural Center.
“There is not Arab Center here,” she informs him. “Not culture, not Israeli culture, not Arab, not culture at all.”
Graciously, Dina offers to put the men up for the night. She’ll personally host Tewfiq and Haled (Ari’el Stachel), the flirtatious trumpeter who asks everyone he meets, “Do you know Chet Baker?” before launching into a rendition of “My Funny Valentine.” Others will stay at the cafe or in the home of Itzik (John Cariani) and his wife Iris (Kristen Sieh), the latter resenting the intrusion.
Not much of significance happens plotwise. Dina and Tewfiq go out to dinner, where they run into her hostile, married ex-boyfriend (Jonathan Raviv) and open up to each other about their troubled pasts: Tewfiq relates the story of how his marriage disintegrated after the death of his son, while Dina confesses that she waited too long to have a child. Meanwhile, Haled escorts one of the Israelis, Papi (Daniel David Stewart), to a roller disco where he helps the lovelorn young man connect with the girl he craves. And a young Israeli man (Erik Liberman), pining for a lost love, waits forlornly at a pay telephone for a call that never seems to come.
It’s the way that these people from very different and often opposing cultures come together with common humanity that forms the heart of the show. Yazbek’s lovely score, incorporating various Middle Eastern influences, quietly accentuates the emotional moments, with his lyrics to such songs as “Omar Sharif” and “Haled’s Song About Love” displaying tender feeling. The soaring climactic number, “Answer Me,” featuring the entire ensemble, is absolutely gorgeous.
In the expert hands of director David Cromer (who took on the project after originally attached director Harold Prince dropped out), the show’s humanistic qualities fully reveal themselves, although its muted tone, unhurried pacing and dark lighting may prove a bit off-putting for some.
Cromer has elicited superb performances from the multi-ethnic ensemble: Shalhoub is wonderfully restrained as the emotionally constricted orchestra leader, and all the more moving for it; and Lenk is so alluring as the earthily sexy Dina that she could single-handedly spark an increase in Israeli tourism. The show’s technical elements also are first-rate, from Scott Pask’s versatile revolving set to Sarah Laux’s expertly character-defining costumes.
Although currently scheduled for a limited run, The Band’s Visit is enchanting enough to make one hope it won’t end anytime soon.
Venue: Atlantic Theater Company, New York
Cast: George Abud, Bill Army, John Cariani, Katrina Lenk, Erik LIberman, Andrew Polk, Rachel Prather, Janathan Raviv, Sharone Sayegh, Tony Shalhoub, Kristen Sieh, Ari’el Stachel, Daniel David Stewart, Alok Tewari
Music & lyrics: David Yazbek
Book: Itamar Moses, based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin
Director: David Cromer
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Tyler Micoleau
Projection designers: Maya Cirrocchi, Five OHM
Orchestrations: Jamshied Sharifi
Music director: Andrea Grody
Movement: Lee Sher
Choreographer: Patrick McCollum
Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company
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