New York City Theater
"The Band’s Visit"
Atlantic Theater Company
“Please turn off your cellphones,” projected on a scrim, is the first sight greeting audiences at “The Band’s Visit,” the exuberant, small-scale, occasionally sleepy musical at the Atlantic Theater Company. The admonition is familiar, except written here in English, Arabic and Hebrew, befitting a work that quietly, humanely, lovingly champions tolerance not xenophobia, community not separation.
If that sounds preachy and solemn, rest assured. The work about an Egyptian police band lost in Israel in 1996, buries its “message” under lively characters and a heartwarming story. With its creative use of turntables, its talented musicians, its incisive performances and its air of modesty, the musical, directed with his usual sensitivity by David Cromer, is a gift of tranquility in an increasingly violent world.
The story is simple. Misunderstanding the name of the Palestinian town to which they were invited to play a concert, the band winds up, instead, in a similar-sounding Israeli backwater. Their reception, wary at first, soon glows with brotherhood. Since no bus leaves until morning, the band spends the night exchanging memories, making music, and, above all, finding common ground.
One composer meets another, a randy musician has little on his mind but chasing women, two lonely people, the Israeli store proprietor Dina and the Egyptian bandleader Tewfig, share regrets. Other pairings -- tentative youngsters and a married couple -- counteract the pain of a lone young man waiting for a phone call that may never come. This is a work about being together, with music as the glue that binds. More than strangers descend on the isolated Israeli town. “Music dispels darkness” and, chances are, the home folk will never be the same.
With idiosyncratic music and lyrics by David Yazbeck that blend the Middle East with Broadway, and a book by Itamar Moses, based on the screenplay by Era Kolirin, “The Band’s Visit” charms. Although the accents sometimes interfere with clarity, there are many sublime moments, such as “Something Different,” sung by Dina and Tewfig who are acted with memorable grace and veracity by Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub.
In the large cast, Ari’el Stachel is both a bumbling ladies’ man and a sympathetic advisor to the lovelorn Julia (Rachel Prather) and Avram (Daniel David Stewart), both fine, as are Andrew Polk, John Cariani, Kristen Sieh and Erik Liberman. As are all, in fact.
“The Band’s Visit” is a modest musical with big ideas. In a world going mad, starting with one-on-one contact may truly be the only path to peace and understanding.
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 22, 2016