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A CurtainUp Review
The Band's Visit
By Elyse Sommer
A lot of people line up on the Linda Gross Theater's stage for their well-deserved curtain call (17 as included in the program as performers, plus musicians). As directed by David Cromer the movie's small and delicate feel has survived. And the integration of music into the characters' interaction enriches the comedy and touching charm of this unanticipated interaction between a group of strangers from different sides of the Egypt-Israel border.
David Yazbek's marvelously moody score perfectly fits book writer Itamar Moses's version of Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin's film script. The fit is so smooth that anyone who who saw Kolirin's award winning debut film will wonder why it wasn't done with music as well as dialogue to begin with.
The stage script follows the film's plot, and even the dialogue, quite closely. It begins with the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band landing in Israel and buying tickets to take them to their destination at the airport bus station. The trouble is that the ticket they buy are for the town of Bet Hatikva, a cultural wasteland in the desert— not the culture rich town named Peta Tikvah where they're to play a concert at the initiation ceremony of the Arab Culture Center the next day.
The mix-up causing the band to arrive in the wrong place turns the bored Bet Hatikvanians into hosts to the Egyptians until they can catch the next morning's bus to Peta Tikvah. While the ensuing cross-cultural spin entails some linguistic awkwardness, this is not a narrowly focused political story but a melancholy human comedy.
The night's events are a chance for loneliness and regrets to be shared and connect a group of very different people as ordinary human beings. The way feelings surface doesn't add up to much of a plot, but it brings something special the night Egyptian musicians and their Israeli hosts spend together. Though characters from both sides of the cultural divide are changed, the changes, like the play, are subtly low key and probably temporary.
The comic aspects of the band's landing in the wrong town is established before a word is spoken. That's when the instruments lining the stage before the play begins replaced by the band members. Lined up in their sky blue blue uniforms opposite a seedy cafe, the musicians and their leader look like escapees from an old Victor Herbert operetta. Sarah Leux has also created character defining outfits for the rest of the cast.
The band member guilty for the mix-up is the good looking, flirtatious Haled (Arfel Stachel). We see him initiating his favorite pick-up routine about Chet Baker and "My Favorite Valentine with the bus ticket selling girl. But the martinet band leader, Colonel Zakaria Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub), sternly reminds him that he's there to purchase the band's tickets.
Haled's confusion about the similarly named towns sets what's essentially a cosmic joke in motion. The action shifts to the seedy Bet Hatikva cafe and the show's first song. It's aptly called "Waiting" which sums up the locals' lethargy and boredom ("Waiting for something/For anything to happen").
It falls to Dina (Katrina Lenk), the world-weary owner of the cafe, to convey the full meaning of Haled's error to Tewfiq. She explains why it's impossible to direct him to the town's Arab Cultural as he request as follows: "There is not Arab Center here. Not culture, not Israeli Culture, not Arab, not culture at all." Her description of Peta Tikvah as a fun, art and culture rich place implies her own sadness about how different things are in Bet Hatikva.
Though brusque and cynical, Dina does take pity on the stranded band and offers them shelter. Tewfiq and Haled are designated to stay with her, the rest of the band with other townspeople.
This not being a film, there's no camera to take us to the various location where the story unfolds. But Scott Pask's turntable set works beautifully to let the action move all around the town. The scene shifts take us from Dina's apartment, to her sort of date with Tewfiq in a restaurant . . . to a dinner in the home of Izik (the always endearing John Cariani) a young husband and new father . . . to a booth with a pay telephone at which a young man named only "Telephone Guy" (Erik Lieberman) compulsively waits for a call from his girl friend . . .to a lively dating vignette at a roller skating rink. There's also a place for some of the musicians to be on hand to deliver the enjoyable instrumental numbers. Pask's set is further enriched by Tyler Micoleau's lighting.
The characters we get to know most fully and memorably are Dina and Tewfiq. Both are superbly portrayed by Katrina Link and Tony Shalhoub. Unsurprisingly so. Shalhoub is a seasoned stage, film and TV actor. Lenk, though not as well known, was magnificent in Indecent , another play with music that premiered at the Vineyard Theater last year and is now headed to Broadway's Cort Theater (hopefully with Link on board).
As Dina, Link captures the pain of a still beautiful woman whose dreams for true love and a fulfilling life have gone unrealized. Her acting and singing merge impeccably as she tells Tewfiq about how her family loved watching Omar Shariff movies on TV and segues into "Omar Sharif." She shares another musical highlight, "Something Different," with Twezig and thrillingly reprises it as a solo later on.
Shalub allows his uptight Colonel to unpack some of his own emotional baggage. Though he's usually a character actor, Shalub bravely joins Ms. Link in that "Something Different" duet.
As already mentioned, nothing much happens or changes by the time the Band is ready to head for their intended destination. As Dina sums it up: "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." But, important or not, you'll be glad that those musicians are at the Atlantic Theater. The score may lack addictive sing-in-the-shower hits but it offers a different and very impressive kind of ear candy.
When you go, as I recommend you do, don't rush out the minute the performers have taken their bows. There's a delightful, not to be missed, musical encore.
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The Band's Visit
Book by Itamar Moses
Music and lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed by David Cromer
Cast: George Abud (Camal), Bill Army (Zelge), John Cariani (Itzik), Katrina Lenk(Dina), Erik Liberman (Telephone Guy), Andrew Polk (Avrum), Rachel Prather (Julia), Jonathan Raviv ((Sammy), Sharone Sayegh (Soldier #1/Anna), Kristen Sieh (2nd Soldier/Iris), Tony Shalhoub (Tewfiq), Ariel Stachel (Haled) Daniel David Stewart (PaPi), Alok Tewari(Simon)
Costumes: Sarah Laux
Lighting: Tyler Micoleau
Projections content design: Maya Cirrocchi
Projections system design: Five OHM
Hair and wigs: Charles La Pointe
Language and dialect coach: Mouna R'miki
Movement/Music Director: Andrea Grody
Musicians: Andrea Grody (director/piano),Jeff Theiss (keyboard), George Abud (violin, oud, darbuka), Sam Sadigursky(Clarinet), Harvey Valdes (guitar), David Garo Yellin (cello), Alexandra Eckhardt(bass), Philip Stuart Mayer (drums, percussion)
Stage Director: Richard A. Hodge
Running Time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Atlantic Theater's Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20th Street
from 11/11/16; opening 12/08/16; closing 1/01/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at December 1st press preview
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