The Band's Visit--A Luminous New Musical
By Joseph Cervelli
The charming, warmly engaging new musical “The Band’s Visit” presented by the Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater playing a limited engagement (a possible Broadway bow has been recently discussed) is one of the highlights of the current theater season.
The show with loving direction by David Cromer and a tender score by David Yazbek (“The Full Monty” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) along with an insightful book by Itamar Moses is based on the Israeli film of the same name.
It begins with an unusual statement projected on the scrim to the effect that the true story about to be told “wasn’t very important.” Probably not, but as related in this genuinely fine show it means a great deal in an understated way about how two cultures can get along with an understanding and respect for each other. Too bad it is not a reality.
A low keyed Colonel Tewfiq (sweetly played by Tony Shalhoub) is the conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arriving from Egypt with his musicians in the wrong Israeli town. They are going to perform in the Arab Culture Center. The mistake occurs when the handsome Egyptian lothario Haled (Ari’el Stachel) who is infatuated with the reservationist asks her as he does other women ,“Do you know Chet Baker?” books the wrong city. They end up in a remote town with what appears to be only one cafe. A barren place where everyone seems to be sad for a variety of reasons.
The owner of the cafe which seems to get very few visitors for obvious reasons is Dina (a wonderful Katrina Lenk) tells Tewfiq whom she develops an affection that to escape boredom she thinks of an Egyptian movie she loves and begins to sing the piercingly simple “Omar Sharif.” Lenk captures this lonely woman’s only real enjoyment in life. It does not help that the man she is in love with is married. And Tewfiq has his own demons which he shares with her later in the show. Shalhoub is simply marvelous as he expresses his feelings in “Something Different.” I have always found Yazbek’s lyrics to be not only imaginative but keenly observant especially in his quirky score to “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” and here he really proves what a poignant lyricist he is.
Other musicians mingle with the Israeli’s resulting in various reactions. Camal (George Abud) and Simon (Harvey Valdes) have dinner at the home of a young Israeli couple played by the caustic wife Iris (Kristen Sieh) and husband played by an endearing John Cariani who later in the show sings the gorgeous “Lullaby.” Things are tenuous during their time together until Iris’s father (Andrew Polk) breaks into “Summertime” which brings them all together.
A delightful scene takes place in the roller rink where Haled helps the introverted Papi (Daniel David Stewart) approach a young woman he likes but too shy to make the move. Stachel does a mighty fine abbreviated rendition of Chet Baker’s glorious jazz interpretation of “My Funny Valentine.” For me no one plays that sublime song as well as the late musician.
I would be at fault if I did not mention a delicately appealing performance by Erik Liberman who is only known as the Telephone Guy waiting patiently throughout the show for a call from his girlfriend. He stands in a shadow of sadness until he finally hears from her and breaks into the warmhearted “Answer Me.”
Moses has written the show almost like chapters in the book which play out gracefully on Scott Pask’s turntable set.
Here is a jewel of a show that glows with dignity and the respect that very different characters have for each other. One only wishes that world situations could be filled with the benevolence that shines so brightly in this musical.
Tickets are available at the Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20th Street or by calling 866.811.4111. As of this date the limited engagement ends January 8.
PHOTOS BY AHRON R. FOSTER