NEW YORK—So what happens when a group of Arabs unintentionally arrives at a remote Israeli settlement? Can these two different cultures get along? This is the scenario behind the amiable “The Band’s Visit,” a new musical based on the award-winning film of the same name.
With music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Itamar Moses (based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin), the Atlantic Theater Company tells the story set in 1999 in the Israeli town of Bet Hatikva. In the middle of the desert where nothing seems to happen, the town’s main attraction for locals is to watch the grass grow—or that’s what they would do were there any grass to watch.
Bet Hatikva’s collective monotony is suddenly shaken when the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, under the baton of the officious Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria (Tony Shalhoub), arrives unexpectedly from Egypt. Scheduled to play an engagement at an Arab cultural center in a city with a similar-sounding name, the company winds up in the wrong place thanks to a mix-up at the bus depot—and because one of the orchestra members, Haled (Ari’el Stachel), was more interested in a pretty lady than in making sure the group got to the correct destination.
Dina (Katrina Lenk), proprietor of the town’s café, offers to help the orchestra find lodgings for the night, as no buses will leave town until the next day. Taking an interest in the colonel, she invites him to spend the night at her place. The colonel agrees, but only after making sure Haled joins them, as he doesn’t trust the younger man to be out of his sight for long.
It’s through the intermingling of these two cultures—with much of the conversation in halting English—that we begin to see the show’s message that we are all the same underneath.
Simon (Alok Tewari), a clarinetist in the orchestra, learns this while staying at the home of Avram (Andrew Polk) and Iris (Kristen Sieh). In his conversations with Iris’s father, Itzik (John Cariani), Simon finds a common love of music. A former musician, Itzik’s reminiscing causes Simon to reveal his own passions, as he talks about the concerto he’s writing.
Contrasted with this joy is the despair Iris feels about her own situation. She’s grown so dissatisfied with her life—trying to raise a baby with Avram perennially “between jobs”—she’s forgotten why she fell in love with him in the first place. Iris’s pain and emptiness mirror Haled’s life, whose eye for the ladies belies an arranged, unwanted marriage awaiting him back home. He, too, is bound to by family rules and expectations.
Also evident is the loneliness embodied in the characters. Dina’s husband deserted her some time ago and she’s had a fling or two since, but in the colonel she sees a kindred spirit. He’s suffered personal tragedies and is cautious about letting anyone get too close.
Hand in hand with the idea of finding common ground is the sad reality that an ingrained suspicion of strangers may simply be too much to overcome—something that Iris demonstrates when she see Simon with her infant son and that Haled finds out when he has an encounter with a security guard at the local roller rink.
“The Band’s Visit” is not so much a musical as a play with music, with some songs working far better than others. The number introducing Bet Hatikva comes off wonderfully, offering a mix of pathos and resigned humor; and the song where Itzik recalls how he met his late wife presents a powerful mix of passion and nostalgia.
In a more comical vein is the enjoyable “Papi Hears the Ocean,” in which Papi (Daniel David Stewart), one of the young men in the town, explains why he is afraid to get close to a girl.
However, many of the other tunes, while pleasant, either add little to the story or would work just as well with a few lines of dialogue.
Additionally, while the characters are interesting enough, none are all that memorable compared with the issues that they raise. As such, one finds oneself watching the show more as a dispassionate observer rather than as an interested party. The direction, by David Cromer, is not strong enough here to make the tale come fully to life.
Shalhoub is wonderful as the seemingly repressed colonel, whose quiet demeanor comes from a past that hurts too much to revisit, and Lenk is very good as the impulsive yet world-weary Dina. The two are clearly a couple the audience would like to see get together.
Cariani works well as Itzik, while Sayegh and Polk portray a couple that most married people can certainly understand. Their marriage has been so overwhelmed by the effects of time, parenthood, and responsibilities that life is nothing like what they once assumed it would be.
Despite its flaws, “The Band’s Visit” offers an interesting commentary on how people are more alike than we realize. The characters provide insights into the human conditions of loneliness and wishful thinking. The last is taken to an extreme by a young man (Erik Liberman) who has been waiting by a pay phone every night for a month, hoping his girlfriend will call.
Also in the cast are Sharone Sayegh, George Abud, Rachel Prather, Bill Army, and Jonathan Raviv.
‘The Band’s Visit’
The Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater
336 W. 20th St.
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or AtlanticTheater.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Jan. 8, 2017
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for StageBuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.