NEW YORK — “Beautiful” is a word we bandy about in the daily pursuit of adjectives to describe the things we love. But even in an entertainment world overrun with superlatives, this is the one you’re compelled to use to describe “The Band’s Visit,” which had its official opening Thursday night at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Beautiful music, beautiful story, beautiful acting. To quote the Emcee in “Cabaret”: Even the orchestra is beautiful. In this case, it consists of eight actor-musicians, portraying the members of a ceremonial police band from Alexandria, Egypt, that has been invited to play a goodwill concert in Israel. Except they arrive in the wrong town, a desert backwater where the blasé residents can’t easily be shaken out of their arid torpor. Not even by the sudden appearance in their midst of courtly, uniformed fellows from a neighboring if culturally distinct country, bearing clarinets and cellos and the enticing hints of the world beyond.
One of the many marvels, though, of “The Band’s Visit” — which is based on a 2007 Israeli movie of the same title and directed here with a maestro’s virtuosic vision by David Cromer — is that its composer, David Yazbek, and book writer, Itamar Moses, wring so much personality and melodic soulfulness out of a story about going nowhere. Even in the driest reaches of the Negev, it seems, you can still be treading water, all the while aching for a life filled with more exhilarating verbs.
That ache is embodied most gloriously in the person of Katrina Lenk, in a star-making turn as an Israeli woman cheated out of adventure, family and intellectual stimulation by unfortunate romantic choices and her own inertia. Lenk’s Dina and the town of Bet Hatikva — the nowheresville that the Egyptians hilariously mistake for their livelier intended destination, Petah Tikva — are made for each other: a woman and a locale both eternally waiting for something, anything, to happen.
“Waiting” happens to be the title Yazbek, composer of Broadway’s “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” gives to the opening number, a luscious anthem introducing us via the turntable on Scott Pask’s fine, sun-baked set to the ordinary Israelis who populate Bet Hatikva. We will, over the course of 100 tautly handled minutes, get to know something essential about every one of them, as if this were a Mediterranean “Our Town” and Moses (apt surname) was reminding us anew that everybody has an urgent story, usually circling around love: the well-meaning schlep (John Cariani) married to the disenchanted wife (Kristen Sieh); the besotted boyfriend (Adam Kantor), guarding a pay phone for one hoped-for call; the widower (Andrew Polk) with the treasured memory of love in bloom; the social klutz (Etai Benson), clueless at the art of seduction.
The orchestra members, too, have tales to tell, and they materialize in Bet Hatikva — their powder-blue jackets and pants waking up the colorless surroundings — as bewildered accidental tourists. Magnetically and amusingly on hand is Ari’el Stachel as Haled, a rakish horn player with an eye for the ladies and an endearingly lame pickup line: “Do you like Shet Baykir?” he asks every woman he encounters, referring to American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Movingly, too, there’s Tony Shalhoub, in an immaculately tender performance as Tewfiq, the reserved band leader to whom Dina is drawn and to whom she sings the swooning memory song “Omar Sharif,” as alluring as a cool wind on a sultry Middle Eastern night.
Lenk’s tough-shelled but empathetic Dina and Shalhoub’s kind and remorseful Tewfiq are even more robust versions of the characters they created earlier this year at off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, where “The Band’s Visit” had its world premiere. Like other cast standouts, such as Stachel, Cariani, Sieh, Benson, Polk and Alok Tewari, who plays a genteel clarinetist with an unfinished concerto at his fingertips, they have managed to metabolize these characters in ways you don’t ordinarily get to experience in a Broadway musical. The bonds between them are as intricately wrought as the gentle transitions from instrumental interludes to dialogue scenes. It’s a show, too, in which the awkward silences come to feel almost as narratively vital as the gorgeous songs.
Important, too, is this lovely fact: Politics plays virtually no role in “The Band’s Visit.” If you expect a musical about Jews and Arabs inevitably to be about unresolved hostility, then this one will broaden your perspective. Because surprise, surprise: We’re every one of us waiting in the desert for a little happiness.
The Band’s Visit, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Itamar Moses. Directed by David Cromer. Music direction, Andrea Grody; orchestrations, Jamshied Sharifi; set, Scott Pask; costumes, Sarah Laux; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Kai Harada; projections, Maya Ciarrocchi; choreography, Patrick McCollum. With George Abud, Bill Army, Jonathan Raviv, Ossama Farouk, Sam Sadigursky, Harvey Valdes, Garo Yellon. About 100 minutes. $49 to $189. At Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York. Visit telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.