…. cultural ambassadors …
A travel weary Egyptian ceremonial police band on their way to play a concert in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva get off the bus by mistake at the small town of Bet Hatikva (you can see how that mistake can be made). There won’t be another bus until morning. Thank heavens for the mistake – or we wouldn’t have this wonderful musical!
The inhabitants of this relative cultural backwater are edgy and cautious about their unexpected visitors but ultimately do what decent humans do: they take them in for the night. And that’s what this show is about: being human, in the better senses of the word.
Language and cultural barriers are bridged in the brief time the Egyptians are marooned in Bet Hatikva. With plenty of hesitation and resistance on both sides, conversation begins to flow. Recognition, understanding, true wit, and music flower.
And love. The beautiful central love story involves Dina owner of the local café, a dusty oasis in the desert, and Tewfiq, the Conductor of the Egyptian Band. Dina’s hospitality is grudging on the surface but never in doubt, and that’s the kind of woman she is: gritty and vulnerable. How fascinating to watch the gorgeous Katrina Lenk in the role of in the role of Dina allure Tewfiq, played with perfect uptight military correctness by Tony Shalhoub.
But like these, all the characters in The Band’s Visit are humanly complex – even the small parts convey fully rounded personalities. The acting, singing, dancing, and instrumental playing are in all ways perfect, intelligent and exciting.
The music – and there are fourteen musical numbers — has a thrilling, seductive near-eastern tonality and the lyrics are full of originality and wit. There’s a lot to laugh at and much that is bitter-sweet in the songs and in the unrolling of the characters’ stories. This is a “you couldn’t want more” kind of show. But dominating the whole is the nuanced acting, full-throated singing and smart, wise beauty of Katrina Lenk’s Dina.
A particularly enchanting interlude finds Dina and Tewfiq on a park bench: Tewfiq, encouraged by Dina, sings a profound and introspective song in Arabic as Dina, in a surreal touch, dances around him, her arms moving with independent grace, as she sings the questions in her mind, wondering what’ s behind the stern, sad mask of the man who so draws her to him.
The set is as perfect as everything else, conjuring up a small town bus station, Dina’s café with its faded sign, a roller skating rink with colored lights (a key aspect of Bet Hatikva night life), and that miraculous park bench — with movement between scenes achieved with deceptive simplicity. A stage floor with a rolling panel has never been set to better use.
The show is set a decade or so ago, when Egyptian-Israeli cultural exchanges were in play, and the story is based on an incident that really happened. And so nostalgia meets with what-if in as bittersweet a romance as that between Dina and Tewfiq. The Band’s finale persuades that music – perhaps even more than love – is the universal language.
The Band’s Visit is based on a screen play by Eran Kolirin, and is directed by David Cromer. It plays at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district in an extended run through January 8, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.