Note: This review is of the previous Off Broadway production.
When was the last time that you saw a new musical in which you cared about the characters and held your breath as you worried about how things would turn out for them? The stage version of The Band’s Visit, the 2007 Israeli movie, is one of those rare musicals.
Adapted by composer/lyricist David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and playwright Itamar Moses (The Fortress of Solitude, The Four of Us) from the original screenplay by Eran Kolirin, the stage version now at Atlantic Theater Company is extremely faithful to the movie while at the same time fleshing out the secondary stories and making them as compelling as the main plot. Tony Shalhoub, Katrina Lenk and a cast of 12, some of whom double as members of the show’s orchestra, give exquisitely nuanced performances that are heart-breaking in their poignancy. Director David Cromer who did such fine work with Our Town, Tribes and The Effect has done it once again.
Seven musicians of Egypt’s Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra have been sent to Israel to open the new Arab cultural center at Petah Tivah. Due to a mix up at the border, they end up in the dead-end desert town of Bet Hatikva which has no hotel, no culture, and no bus until the morning. However, their visit is the most interesting thing to happen in Bet Hatikva in years as these unlikely visitors represent something different from the outside world. Restaurant owner Dina (Lenk) once a dancer in a big city, now resigned to her boring fate, takes pity on them, feeds them and arranges for them to stay the night in three places including her home. She takes dour, formal conductor Tewfiq (Shalhoub) and young ladies’ man, Haled (Ari’el Stachel). Although the visit is only one night, none of them will ever be the same again.
Dina takes Tewfiq under her wing and they go out for the evening. Second clarinetist Simon and sometimes conductor (Alok Tewari) goes to stay with unemployed Itzik, his angry wife Iris and her father Avrum (a former musician), while Haled joins traumatized Papi, high flyer Zelger and two girls, Anna and Julia for an evening at the local roller rink. Among the exquisitely poignant moments in the moonlight are Tewfiq teaching Dina how to conduct and Haled giving the inexperienced and uptight Papi lessons in how to woo women. In the course of the evening, all the characters from these two different worlds move closer together (though they occasionally speak either Hebrew or Arabic but communicate in English) and dissolve the cultural divide that at first seems insurmountable.
Yazbek’s musicals have always been able to create communities and all of their residents, and The Band’s Visit is no exception. His gorgeously tinged Middle Eastern score includes songs of all varieties: a patter song, a choral number, a lullaby, a blues song, a love song, a double duet. The haunting score seems to express the unspoken emotions just lurking below the surface. While much of Moses’ dialogue comes directly from the screenplay, he has also managed to make all the characters richer and more revealing of their emotional lives.
As the band’s leader and conductor, Shalhoub, best known for his obsessive-compulsive detective Monk but also for stage performances in Act One, Golden Boy and Lend Me a Tenor, is very subtle as the uptight Tewfiq who is hiding demons from his private life. Seen earlier in the equally extraordinary Once and Indecent, Lenk as the free-spirited Dina is his exact opposite and as such is just the right person to help thaw him out. Their tentativeness as they try to break through the walls that separate them as people of varying faiths, life styles and genders is both affecting and unforgettable.
Stachel is amusing as the ladies’ man with exactly one pick-up line with which to make a pass at women, while Tewari as the 20-year-married clarinetist who has never finished his concerto since leaving the academy gives a sensitive performance that is affecting in its subtlety. John Cariani’s slacker husband Itzik who has not been able to support his wife for a year, Daniel David Stewart’s introverted Papi, and Rachel Prather as the gloomy Julia who can’t get a date are all equally affecting. Andrew Polk makes the most of the upbeat Avrum thrilled to meet a fellow musician after all these years.
Scott Pask’s clever nondescript desert town setting with its revolving stage and moveable walls allows The Band’s Visit to make its transitions with the minimum of effort and some lovely tableaux. The silvery moonlight over Bet Hatikva which gives the show an other-worldly glow is the work of lighting designer Tyler Micoleau. Sarah Laux’s costumes define all of the characters in their various life styles and moods. Kudos to Mouna R’miki as dialect coach, Lee Sher for movement, and choreographer Patrick McCollum for Tewfiq and Dina’s dance.
Yazbek and Moses’ The Band’s Visit is that rare musical which is not only an improvement over its source material, it also holds up as a unique theatrical experience. The score, the story, the performances, the theme of bridging cultural gaps are all memorable. Tony Shalhoub’s Tewfiq and Katrina Lenk’s Dina will stay with you long after you have left the theater as will the entire show, a credit to director David Cromer who knows how to make theater magic. Don’t leave before the curtain calls are over as the most joyous scene (which we have been waiting for all evening) takes place at the very end.
The Band’s Visit (reopened November 9, 2017 for an open run)
Transferred to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-339-6200 or visit http://www.thebandsvisitmusical.com
Atlantic Theater Company,Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street, in Manhattan
(extended through Jan. 8, 2017)
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission