When an Egyptian police orchestra finds itself stranded in the Israeli desert after traveling to the wrong town, the newcomers’ presence sparks a night of unusual encounters and unexpected connections. That’s the lovely, funny, and moving scenario behind the acclaimed new musical The Band’s Visit, which began performances at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre October 7.
Amid an ensemble of distinctive characters, Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub give enchanting performances as Dina, the effortlessly alluring proprietor of the town’s only café, and Tewfiq, the band’s ultra-dignified conductor. Though they’re nothing alike, Dina and Tewfiq “recognize something deeply familiar in each other,” says Lenk, who joined Shalhoub for a lunch-break chat during rehearsals.
The costars felt an immediate chemistry during the show’s premiere engagement last fall at the Atlantic Theater Company, and they’re delighted to take The Band’s Visit — already the winner of four major best musical awards — to Broadway. During the first production, recalls Shalhoub, “friends would call me two or three days after they’d seen it and say, ‘I can’t stop thinking about this,’ all the little moments that touched them in a way they hadn’t experienced in a long time. That was really gratifying.”
In his first-ever musical, the three-time Emmy Award–winning star of TV’s Monk dons a powder-blue uniform for his band’s ill-timed detour to Bet Hatikva, Israel. The group had been scheduled to play at the opening of the Arab Culture Center at the similarly named Petah Tikvah, but instead, they’ve arrived at a place, quips Dina, offering “not culture, not Israeli culture, not Arab, not culture at all.” She then leads the townspeople in “Welcome to Nowhere,” one of composer David Yazbek’s witty, character-driven songs.
For the next 90 minutes, The Band’s Visit takes audiences on an irresistible and often romantic musical journey. “The score is so beautiful,” says Lenk, who returns to the role of Dina after winning raves in Paula Vogel’s Tony-nominated play Indecent. “It’s this fusion of traditional Middle Eastern sounds, something close to jazz, and musical theater, in that order. And David’s lyrics are so smart and funny but never pretentious. It’s just very true.”
While heaping praise on Yazbek’s score and librettist Itamar Moses’s adaptation of the show’s source material, a 2007 Israeli film, critics noted the subtlety of director David Cromer’s staging. “[Cromer] has a delicate touch,” Shalhoub says. “The landscape of this piece is simple, but it allows the characters to really pop. The focus is on these faces and these voices.” Chuckling, he adds: “It’s also challenging because we’re all hambones. David keeps a lid on letting things become too jokey, and yet the show gets big, warm, genuine laughs growing out of the truth of the characters.”
Great casting, of course, is the key to bringing any musical to life, and the pairing of Shalhoub and Lenk produces one of those happy surprises that can’t be predicted until two actors take the stage together. In conversation, they are modest and self-deprecating but more than willing to shower each other with compliments. “Tony is an extremely generous scene partner,” Lenk says of Shalhoub, who began his career in the theater and is a two-time Tony Award nominee for Golden Boy and Act One. “He has absolutely no ego and is willing to try anything and keep exploring and digging deeper.”
Lenk’s gorgeous voice and musicianship (she plays the violin, viola, guitar, and piano) deeply impress her costar. “She has this bottomless, endless talent,” says Shalhoub. “It’s one thing for a person to have a beautiful singing voice, but to combine that with being an amazing actor and her skill and experience as a musician — she makes everything look effortless. It’s humbling to observe, I can tell you that. For her, it’s the most natural thing in the world. For me, it’s torture.”
Laughing, Lenk interjects: “Well, it doesn’t seem like torture! You handle it really, really well.”
Shalhoub’s reticence is a plus as he portrays a character he describes as “damaged goods,” explaining, “Tewfiq has made some missteps, and that accounts for his rigid quality. This little orchestra is all he has left that he has any control over. He arrives at this town in a state of paralysis, and then he regains a bit of his humanness and his soul that he had lost touch with.”
Reflecting on Dina and Tewfiq’s shy attraction, Lenk observes: “They’re both flawed, and like most people in this story, they’re waiting for change. I think Dina sees something in Tewfiq, this mysterious person from somewhere else. Things start to come alive inside these two people who were waiting for something hopeful to happen.”
In one of the musical’s most poignant scenes, Dina and Tewfiq bond over their shared appreciation for the Egyptian movies of Omar Sharif, known in America as the star of Doctor Zhivago and Funny Girl. “This is not a political show by any stretch,” Shalhoub says, “but in a quiet way it has a deeper message. It’s the story of people from two cultures whose relations have been strained beyond measure, and yet when you boil it down to human interactions and the connection of music, there’s something real and recognizable about that.”
All in all, it’s a perfect moment for a new musical about wary strangers getting in touch with their shared humanity. “We were overwhelmed by the positive response from audiences Off-Broadway, and it’s thrilling that more people will get to see the show,” Lenk says of moving The Band’s Visit uptown. “I hope it will continue to delight and move everyone who sees it on Broadway.”
Photo: Atlantic Theater Company Production, photograph by Ahron R. Foster