NEW YORK — When I first saw Eran Kolirin’s film “The Band’s Visit” a decade ago I found it to be a remarkable and poignant gem, a melancholy desert rose amid the thorny entanglements of Middle Eastern cinema. What I did not see were seeds for a rich, emotional night of musical theater.
Luckily I am not a Broadway producer. Luckier still, book writer Itamar Moses and composer/lyricist David Yazbek have vision (and an ear) far superior to my own.
After a fruitful run Off-Broadway, “The Band’s Visit” has moved to the Great White Way and it is a tremendous success. Though certain aspects of the film can never be replaced, like the deadpan imagery in some of its cinematography and the marvelous performance by Sasson Gabai, the stage version takes a small cinematic curiosity and enlarges it to something bold and unforgettable.
This is not to say it doesn’t stay intimate. This is still a story that one can summarize in a sentence. To wit: an Egyptian police band headed to an Arab cultural center in Petah Tikvah mistakenly travels to a sleepy town in the Negev and has to stay with the locals for a night until the next bus arrives. But by shaving a few characters and giving everyone songs to sing, the aches and desires of these characters take on a grander and more universal importance.
The musical numbers are a blend of classical Arabic music (indeed, most of the instrumentation doesn’t come from an orchestra pit, but the actors on the stage) and what can be considered traditional “show” music. (Though the suave trumpeter Haled’s big tune is straight-up nightclub jazz.) This all makes for more than an acceptable coexistence. It is a new and dizzying synthesis of sounds.
Tony Shalhoub is quite strong as Tewfiq, commander of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, a polite and serious man holding his tragic past close to his vest. His main aim is to keep his group on the straight-and-narrow, especially since civic budget cuts threaten its existence. When the familiar Arab mispronunciation (“b” for “p”) sends them to the fictional Beit Hatikvah, he refuses to call the embassy for help.
Luckily he ends up at Dina’s restaurant. Dina, a weary “other woman” in the middle of nowhere, is played by Katrina Lenk, who may as well start making room on her shelf for the awards she’ll accrue.
I must admit I was skeptical that anyone could play this part as well as the film’s Ronit Elkabetz, the actor and director who recently passed away. Lenk’s interpretation is less aggressive, perhaps a little swoonier. As different members of the band pair off with other townsfolk, the evening chat between Tewfiq and Dina remains the spine, and is the story’s most poignant and the most sad.
The magic is in the details of the Police Orchestra’s night in Bet Hatikvah. A trip to a roller rink, some dramatically sliced watermelon, hastily made instant coffee, a recitation of Omar Sharif’s lines from “The River of Love” all swirl together to create a definite sense of place. A facile reading might suggest that Dina is someone who overly romanticizes Arabs and Arabic culture. The truth is she overly romanticizes everything. That is, except for herself.
From its opening tableaux — men in baby blue uniforms in a modern bus terminal — “The Band’s Visit” threatens to be a string of zany adventures. Cutesy foreigners in a wacky land. While there is comedy (Arabs and Israelis faking their way through the lyrics of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” is, I can assure you, a hoot) there is, thankfully, not much that’s silly here.
It’s also surprisingly apolitical. Perhaps that’s because everybody knows what everyone else is thinking, so why bother saying it? No one in the film is overly reactionary or religious, but — Dina’s zeal for Umm Kulthum and Farid al-Atrash aside — these aren’t fiery peace advocates either. These are regular people caught in the deserts of their own dreams given a moment of self-reflection thanks to an unexpected encounter.
It stands to reason that the most meaningful moments in this story about musicians are the ones told with silence. But remember what I said about the producers of this show not being fools? While heartbreaking, “The Band’s Visit” still ends with a combustible coda of uplifting instrumental music, sending theater-goers out into the New York evening with an intoxicating rhythm, and the desire for a return visit.