“Once not long ago a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”
What appears at first glance to be a slight ripple in history sometimes affects those present in profoundly unexpected ways. This gem of a musical, whose fine book buoys grounded lyrics, embraces what we have in common rather than becoming yet another platform for political social/division. That it does so with limpid delicacy eschewing Hollywood outcomes makes the piece as refreshing as it is sympathetic.
The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra has been invited to open an Arab Cultural Center in Pet Hatikva, Israel. Overseen with utmost decorum “We are here to represent our country!” by their conductor, Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria (Tony Shaloub), the small troop appear somewhat dazed. Crisp, powder blue military uniforms stand out against sand and cracked cement as if landed from another planet. In fact, they are strangers in a strange land.
Tony Shaloub, Alok Tewari, Ari’el Stachel
When trumpet player/ladies man Haled (Ari’el Stachel) mistakenly arranges passage to neighboring Bat Hatikva (B not P), the men find themselves in a one horse desert town without the horse. Locals pass by means of a stage floor turntable. They’re all “Waiting”, but is it for something special or just “Looking off out into the distance/even though you know the view is never gonna change…”
Café owner Dina (Katrina Lenk), affable Itzik (John Cariani), and hapless young Papi (Daniel David Stewart) sing “Welcome to Nowhere.” As the next bus doesn’t come through till tomorrow and the settlement has no hotel, Dina agrees to put up Tewfiq and Haled. Itzik takes home clarinetist Simon (Alok Tewari) and violinist Camal (George Abud.) Others will bunk in the café.
John Cariani, Katrina Lenk, Daniel David Stewart
David Yazbeck’s infectious music embraces Middle Eastern influences with estimable skill, maintaining an atmosphere of “other” one rarely finds in musical theater. Orchestra members without speaking parts supplement hidden musicians creating inclusiveness. Stachel actually plays trumpet, Tewari, clarinet, Abud, violin. Several cast members speak fluent Arabic while others deliver dialogue in Hebrew. There isn’t a single weak link in acting or vocals. Casting (Tara Rubin) must’ve been like scaling a glass mountain.
The play evolves over a single afternoon and evening with four integrated chapters. In Avrum’s home (Andrew Polk as Iris’s father), we observe Itzak’s unemployment and a new baby strain his marriage to Iris (Kristin Sieh). Polk tells Avrum’s love story with palpable warmth. A pleasing “Beat of Your Heart” elicits memories: Love starts when the tune is sweet/And you lift your feet/to the beat of your heart…Simon unwittingly affects dynamics.
Kristen Sieh, John Cariani, Alok Tewari, Andrew Polk, George Abud
At a well staged roller rink, Papi panics around girls. Description of his state “Papi Hears the Ocean” is priceless. Haled instills the boy with confidence in a charming scene.
Curious about and drawn to her guest, the attractive Dina literally lets her hair down and engineers private time with Tewfiq. It seems she’s familiar with Egyptian film and the music of female vocalist Umm Kulthum. “Omar Sharif” is wistful and original: From the West from the South/Honey in my ears/Spice in my mouth…Dina gets the guarded conductor to begin to open up. He sings in a capella Arabic (with immense feeling), but is it about love, she wonders, or fishing? Still, this man is compelling. They understand one another on a deeper level. It’s “Something Different.”
Tony Shaloub, Katrina Lenk
The fourth chapter, an embodiment of hopeful perseverance, is played out with the Telephone Guy (Erik Liberman, good vocal) who has stood outside a phone booth every night for a month waiting for a promised call from his girl. Then it’s time for the orchestra to move on. We last see them – performing – in Pet Hatikva. It’s extremely difficult not to get up and dance. A completely satisfying experience.
Ari’el Stachel imbues Haled with gentleness that would appeal to the girls with whom his character continually flirts, yet masculinity is ever present. His paternal attitude toward Papi is lovely. And he sings. Daniel David Stewart is pitch perfect as awkward, earnest Papi.
Katrina Lenk and Tony Shaloub are a match made in heaven. Lenk’s earthy, sensual, smart portrayal make Dina a real and formidable woman. Rarely have the practical and passionate been so believable in tandem. And she has a superb voice.
Shaloub’s performance is layered and nuanced. Fastidiousness is unmistakable. Revealing his painful past, Tewfiq maintains perspective, yet at one point, we hear his breath catch. His song communicates lost illusions – I didn’t understand a word. The couple’s parting couldn’t be more convincingly manifest.
Director David Cromer has both a soulful character touch and the kind of comprehensive staging vision that never makes a false move. The turntable is wonderfully utilized. Live musicians are meticulously integrated.
Language and Dialect Coach Mouna R’miki deserves a standing ovation. Scott Pask’s flexible set evokes the desolate environment while maintaining a sense of community with flow.
Photos by Ahron R. Foster
Opening: Ari’el Stachel, David Garo Yellin, George Abud, Tony Shalloub, Harvey Valdes, Sam Sadigursky, Alok Tewari
Atlantic Theater Company presents
The Band’s Visit
Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek; Book by Itamar Moses
Based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin
Music Director: Andrea Grody; Orchestrations: Jamishied Sharifi
Directed by David Cromer
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20 Street
Through January 1, 2017