It’s an indelible image: half a dozen Egyptian soldiers in robin’s egg blue uniforms standing in a line with their musical instruments, surrounded by barren Israeli desert. It’s the visual punchline of Eran Kolirin’s 2007 debut film, “The Band’s Visit,” and it won over audiences internationally with its simple but moving story of lonely Jews and Muslims struggling, in the midst of an absurd situation, to communicate with one another.
It must have made sense, given the film’s musical elements, to turn it into a musical. But the Off-Broadway musical version of “The Band’s Visit,” which opened last Thursday night in Chelsea starring Tony Shalhoub, only fitfully makes the case, despite music by the talented composer David Yazbek (“The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”), that the material deserves to be turned into another medium.
Directed by David Cromer (“Our Town”), who stepped in when the original director, Hal Prince, bowed out last spring, “The Band’s Visit” is adapted by Itamar Moses (“Fortress of Solitude”) and deviates little from Kolirin’s script. Tewfiq (Shalhoub) is the conductor of the Egyptian military band which, because of its members’ difficulty in speaking Hebrew, ends up taking a bus to Beit Hatikvah (a fictional town) instead of Petach Tikvah, where it is slated to perform at the inauguration of a new Arab cultural center.
Near the bus stop in the desert settlement is a café run by a woman named Dina (Katrina Lenk), whose boredom and sexual frustration are evident. While they wait for the next day’s bus, the men are obliged to bunk at Dina’s apartment, as well as at the home of an unemployed young father, Itzik (John Cariani), who hangs out at the café. Thrown together for the night, the Jewish and Muslim characters try, with their halting English, to avoid too much painful silence and to find common ground. Only when they discover that they all know the song “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess,” do they find a brief moment of joyful connection.
Shalhoub, who starred in the long-running TV series “Monk” as well as many feature films (including the cult classic “Big Night”), is a perfect choice for the role of Tewfiq; while Shalhoub brings the requisite shyness and discomfort in his skin, he has a more hangdog air than the Israeli Jewish actor Sasson Gabai, who played the character in the film. But the one irreplaceable performer in the film is its Dina, Ronit Elkabetz, a luminous, peerless actress who helped to catapult Israeli cinema into the top ranks of international film. (Tragically, she died of cancer in April, at the age of 53.) Lenk is a solid performer, with a beautiful voice, but it is hard to match the combination of intelligence, seductiveness and vulnerability that Elkabetz conveyed on film.
Standouts among the other musical’s other actors are the slightly goofy-looking Cariani (Motel the Tailor in the 2004 Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof”) and Haled (Ari’el Stachel), the band’s trumpet player and resident Lothario, whose method of picking up women is asking if they like the jazz musician Chet Baker and then singing Baker’s version of “My Funny Valentine.”
Yazbek’s music, which is a kind of amalgam of klezmer and Arab melodies, is performed by the musicians who play the members of the Egyptian band. Oddly, they are obscured by a large box-like wall that dominates the center of the stage (and which contains doors in the front that open up to show Dina’s café). A turntable, which serves to bring the actors from behind this wall onto the main part of the stage, is a clever device and one that works symbolically in terms of the sense that so many characters have that their lives are going in circles. But it also means that the musicians are mostly invisible to the audience, and that some of the action of the play takes place in the back corners of the stage, which are difficult to see.
Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub star in “The Band’s Visit.”
A bigger problem is that most of Yazbek’s songs are merely serviceable. Lenk does have one absolutely terrific song, “Omar Sharif,” which she sings when Tewfiq has allowed himself to be dragged out to a restaurant for dinner; she confesses to him that she grew up in Israel listening to Egyptian music, watching Egyptian films, and dreaming about being carried away on a “jasmine wind” to a magical place.
In counterpoint to “Omar Sharif” is another solo song that comes later in the show, “Itzik’s Lullaby,” in which the young man pours out his heart about his marital troubles. But the musical as a whole only finds its full-throated voice after the curtain call, and the members of the band take up their instruments to do an impromptu concert. It’s an unexpected pleasure, and it makes one wonder how much more engaging the musical could be if it didn’t keep finding ways to distance the performers from the audience.
A recurring motif in “The Band’s Visit” is a young man who waits expectantly by a desert pay phone for his girlfriend to call; the image of the phone booth is the cover illustration for the show’s playbill. For too much of “The Band’s Visit,” I felt like that young man — waiting for something exciting to happen and never being at all sure that it would.
“The Band’s Visit” runs through Sunday, Jan 1 at the Atlantic Theatre Company, 336 W. 20th St. Performances are Tuesdays and Sundays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. For tickets, $91.50, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit ovationtix.org.