by Anne E. Johnson
When Tony Shalhoub first took the stage as Tewfiq, conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra in David Yazbek’s new musical The Band’s Visit at the Atlantic Theater, he quietly reminded his players that they were representing Egypt on their trip to an Arab cultural center in Israel.
The band is trying to get to the city of Petah Tikva, but accidentally ends up in the small town of Bet Hatikva. The show covers the day and night the Egyptians are stranded in the wrong place. We watch them getting to know a few residents and revealing themselves in the process.
There are moments of tension between the Muslims and the Jews — sexual, economic, political. There are moments of love, understanding, epiphany. And there’s some captivating music by the chameleon Yazbek, who’s as comfortable writing R&B and American popular standards as he is writing Israeli folk songs and Arab classical pieces. Much of it was played onstage by multitalented cast members such as trumpeter Ari’ El Stachel, violinist George Abud, and clarinetist Alok Tewari. Powerhouse singer Katrina Lenk played Dina, the owner of a coffee shop and a lost soul happy to welcome any breath of the new into her little town.
Although at its surface The Band’s Visit is merely sweet, this is an important musical. Profound, even. It’s a tender approach to the Israeli/Arab question; Yazbek’s focus on relationships rather than relations suggests that peace might be attainable, at least at the level of individuals.