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The Band's Visit
Photograph: Courtesy Ahron R. Foster

Theater review: The Band’s Visit takes us to a distant, quirky land

Written by
David Cote

In your average musical, characters talk for stretches, until the orchestra sounds, and then they warble about what they did for love or how people would taste great in pies. But the wall separating speech from song is not so definite in the wise and deeply satisfying The Band’s Visit. Appropriate for a show about Egyptians briefly losing themselves in an Israeli town, the boundary between speech and song dissipates like hookah smoke in the breeze.

Music is naturally woven into the fabric of the narrative, faithfully following the 2007 screenplay of Eran Kolirin’s film. Seven members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra have arrived in Israel from Egypt to play a concert at the new Arab cultural center in Petah Tikva. Accents being what they are, the men (suited in powder-blue uniforms) accidentally purchase tickets to the underpopulated desert town of Bet Hatikva. It’s a dusty, depressed village, badly in need of sweet melodies.

Book writer Itamar Moses crafts 13 low-key scenes through which the puckish, soulful composer-lyricist David Yazbek (Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) threads a dozen tunes. Sensitively directed by David Cromer, these numbers emerge from conversational talk with pure, organic simplicity. One minute, trumpet player Haled (Ari’el Stachel) is encouraging a shy roller-skating teen to relax and get to know a girl he’s crushing on; the next, he’s singing in a smoky jazz baritone about how love means melting into one, no divisions. Taking his cue from the Middle Eastern milieu, Yazbek has written a sinuous score tinged with Arabic and klezmer influences, odes to remembering or regretting. Yazbek is one of our best comic lyricists, but here his verses are restrained, pensive and brimful of yearning. Moses matches him for emotional honesty, using silence or misunderstanding to articulate the messy inner lives of the characters—all of whom have unfinished business or healing ahead of them.

As the crusty but privately mournful bandleader, Tony Shalhoub turns in yet another expert portrait of baffled pride. Intensely beautiful, Katrina Lenk throws off genuine sparks as Dina, local café owner. The scenes between Shalhoub and Lenk have an unforced erotic charge, even if you’ve checked conventional romantic expectations at the door. In smaller roles, the excellent George Abud earns laughs as a fidgety violinist making an important call. He shares scenes with Erik Liberman as Telephone Guy, a devoted soul waiting in the cold by a public pay phone for his girlfriend to call. This is the sort of show in which a peripheral, one-joke figure becomes, in a surprising climax, the burning emotional core of the whole night. The Band’s Visit is remarkably fresh and revelatory that way.

“Honey in my ears / Spice in my mouth,” is how Dina sings of discovering Egyptian culture via film star Omar Sharif and singer Oum Kalthoum in her youth. Likewise, we leave the Atlantic Theater with our senses flush and tingling, having journeyed a long distance to discover home truths.

Atlantic Theater Company (Off Broadway). Music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Book by Itamar Moses. Directed by David Cromer. With Tony Shalhoub, Katrina Lenk, Ari’el Stachel. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission. Through Jan 8. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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