Watching The Band’s Visit, a new musical at Atlantic Theater Company is like being drawn into the periphery of an intimate story and becoming a part of each small moment as it unfolds. The musical is based on Erin Kolirin’s screenplay for the award-winning film of the same name and has a Robert Altmanesque cinematic quality. But Itmar Moses, who wrote the book, and composer/lyricist David Yazbek, have managed to maintain the intimacy of an independent film and still successfully translate the story to the stage. Set designer Scott Pask uses moving circular turntables and projections that contribute mightily to this theatrical translation as does director David Cromer’s simple imaginative approach to time, place and relationships.
The Band’s Visit gives us personal glimpses of loneliness, longing and connection. It moves with a sweet slowness that is emotionally filled by the multi-talented diverse cast. The plot revolves around a simple mistake which creates an unexpected intersection of two cultures, Egyptian and Israeli, at a god forsaken Israeli town in the middle of nowhere, Bet Hatikva, a place “where you keep looking off out into the distance even though you know the view is never gonna change." Into the mix of Mr. Yazbek’s pop/rock infused score is thrown some gorgeous live classical Arabic music, since the travel mishap happens to the The Egyptian Police Band made up of stellar actor/musicians Ari’el Stachel, George Abud, Sam Sadigursky, Alok Tewari, Harvey Valdes and David Garo Yellin on trumpet, violin, flute, clarinet, guitar, oud and cello. Conductor Tewfiq leads the band and is played with sincerity and aching sadness by the great Tony Shaloub. Stranded in Bet Hatikva until the following day, the residents offer hospitality for the evening and relationships begin to form using the universal language of music; Andrew Polk’s Avrum passionately leads the rousing number “Beat of Your Heart” proclaiming, “Love starts on a downbeat…..love sparks on the upbeat."
Mr. Shaloub’s understated layered performance as the widowed band leader is matched by Katrina Lenk’s luminous Dina, an Israeli woman searching for more and stuck in this desert town. Their duet “Something Different” is beautifully crafted with Ms. Lenk’s interior musical monologue juxtaposed against Mr. Shaloub’s conducting and singing in Arabic. Another musical number, “Papi Hears the Ocean," is marvelously mined for every comic turn by Daniel David Stewart as Papi, a shy awkward newbie to love and the art of seduction. Fortunately he has a new found teacher who knows all about girls, Egyptian trumpet player Haled played with a laid back Dean Martin groove by the smooth voiced Mr. Stachel. Mr. Stewart and Mr. Stachel team up for “Haled’s Song About Love” with some delightful seduction instructions that pay off for Papi. Other relationships explored during the band’s brief visit include a young married Israeli couple who’ve just had their first child and are struggling under the strain of making ends meet. John Cariani as Itzik is a bit of a dreamer and can’t quite seem to hold onto a job much to the consternation of his breadwinner wife Iris (Kristen Sieh). Both Mr. Cariani and Ms. Sieh bring a deep believability to their roles and Mr. Cariani sings “Itzik’s Lullaby” tenderly. Rounding out the ensemble, Sharone Sayegh, Rachel Prather, Bill Army & Jonathan Raviv all create several distinct characters that added to the authenticity of the town of Bet Hatikva. Finally the character of the Telephone Guy (Erik Liberman) seems to be a resonating metaphor for The Band’s Visit. Throughout the evening, we see him standing at a pay phone. As Dina points out to Tewfiq, "You see this boy? Every night he waits his girlfriend to call. A month now like this. He wait and wait and wait." Mr. Liberman, who possess a breathtakingly beautiful voice, begins the yearning anthemic “Answer Me” and is then joined by Bet Hatikva’s visitors and residents alike. It is a stirring musical moment that then is topped by an infectious Arabic music jam session after the curtain call, led by the fervent Mr. Abud on violin and darbuka. This is when the audience left the periphery and join in the stomping and clapping.