Aisle View: Desert Song

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Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in The Band's Visit
Photo: Ahron R. Foster

"Nothing is as beautiful as something you don't expect," Katrina Lenk sings midway through The Band's Visit, the new musical from the Atlantic Theater Company. That sentiment--about the beauties of the unexpected, set to a soaring melody by David Yazbek--applies pretty much in full to The Band's Visit itself: a surprising, tuneful, humorous and uplifting new musical.

The source material--Eran Kolirin's 2007 film about an Egyptian Orchestra on an accidental overnight visit to a small Israeli town in 1996--does not quite suggest what is in store for us; clashing cultures, butchered language, and inbred mistrust come to mind. Matters are altogether different when the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra comes to Bet Hatikva at the invitation of the local Arab Cultural Center. Only, they are looking for Petah Tikva; Bet Hatikva, local restaurant owner Dina (Ms. Lenk) explains, has no Arab Cultural Center, no Israeli Cultural Center, no culture at all. "Build a road to the middle of the desert, pour cement on the spot," and that's where they are. The action takes place as the locals open their homes to the musicians over the long night, until the next bus comes through.

The show begins tentatively, as the Egyptians--led by their uncomfortably stodgy conductor, Tewfiq (Tony Shalhoub)--engage in something of a comedy of errors. (The only advice we can offer to this endearing musical, still in its developmental stages, is to reconfigure the first fifteen minutes or so.) At that point, Dina--asked about her ex-husband--launches into "It Is What It Is," one of those 'men in my life' songs, whilst she viciously disembowels a watermelon with all the force of Mrs. Lovett's "Worst Pies in London."

This is Yazbek--one of our most colorful composer lyricists, of The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels--in top form. Moments later, a different group of locals and visitors bond over music, prompting middle-aged widower Avrum (Andrew Polk) to explosively explain how he met his wife. "Love Starts on a Downbeat" spills out into the streets of the village and thrusts out into the audience. Here, as in many places in the score, we seem to be getting the Yazbek of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; this is all to the good, as that unjustly overlooked score is full of wonder (and the music logically has a shared Mediterranean flavor).

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John Cariani, Katrina Lenk and Daniel David Stewart in The Band's Visit
Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Soon thereafter, Yazbek gives his heroine a lushly beautiful song about the jasmine wind floating from the west, bringing "honey in my ears, spice in my mouth." It's the magic of the desert and the spell of the music, written in a style which mixes Arabic rhythms with Israeli--but is also based in the common language of American musical theatre. (It is no accident that the locals and the foreigners break the ice, at two points, with brief quotations from "Summertime" and "My Funny Valentine.")

This critical concentration on Yazbek's work is not intended to overlook the book by Itamar Moses (The Fortress of Solitude), a skillful mix of comedy and sentiment without turning crass or cheap. He and Yazbek spread their dozen songs so many of the villagers have their own moment in the spotlight, interspersed with numerous spots reserved for Ms. Lenk (and wisely so). The cast is a relatively large seventeen, which includes several onstage musicians who double as members of the Egyptian band. Director David Cromer keeps the action moving, making constant use of the turntable in Scott Pask's set. (The skimpy scenery and overworked turntable make one wonder whether the designs were fully utilized for the production at the Atlantic. The scenery, at present, is not quite up to Pask's usual level of ingenuity.) The effective, cross-cultural orchestrations are by Jamshied Sharifi, with the eight-piece band led by Andrea Grody.

The acting company--almost all of whom are fresh faces hereabouts--is uniformly good. Lenk, who spent time as a replacement in Once, wins our hearts with song after song. Emmy-winner Shalhoub ("Monk") gives a commanding performance as the initially formal leader of the band, while John Cariani (Something Rotten!) is tender as an unemployed and unemployable father. The aforementioned Mr. Polk, Daniel David Stewart and Ar'iel Stachel shine in their respective solos.

Which takes us back to Mr. Yazbek's contributions. "Papi Hears the Ocean" is touching, "Haled's Song of Love" ("Melt the Ice") is lovely, and "Something Different" is likely to leave you absolutely beaming. The show ends with "Answer Me," a 'come together' song which builds into a grand choral arrangement that washes over the house. The performance is capped by a short jam session from the visiting band.

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Tony Shalhoub (left) and Ar'iel Stachel (right) in The Band's Visit
Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Broadway's exciting new musicals, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and Dear Evan Hansen, are both unconventional shows which took the route from non-profit to 45th Street, strengthening their appeal along the way. Let us hope that The Band's Visit--from the Atlantic, home of Spring Awakening--follows a similar course.
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The Band's Visit opened December 8, 2016 and continues through January 1, 2017 at The Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater