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‘The Band’s Visit’ review: Poignant, beautifully told musical

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub star in

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub star in "The Band's Visit," which opened Thursday at the Barrymore Theatre. Credit: Matthew Murphy

WHAT “The Band’s Visit”

WHERE Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., Manhattan

INFO $59-$250, 212-239-6200, telecharge.com

BOTTOM LINE A beautiful story of longing survives the move to Broadway.

Not much happens in the fictional Israeli town called Bet Hatikva, described by the actors portraying its residents as “barren,” “bleak,” “bland,” and above all, “boring.”

And at first glance, not all that much happens onstage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where “The Band’s Visit” has just opened after a much-heralded run late last year at the Atlantic Theater Company resulted in an almost universal demand for a transfer to Broadway.

In truth, though, much does take place in the 95 minutes we spend with those residents, and the Egyptian police band in pale blue Sgt. Pepper uniforms that has, through an exasperating failure of communication, mistakenly landed in their midst. (They were looking for Petah Tikva.)

Eight stranded Egyptians in an Israeli town could have resulted in a play that follows another path, one of cultural differences and political divisiveness. But those issues are not really touched on in the musical that was inspired by the 2007 Israeli indie film of the same name.

Instead we get a beautifully told, more human story, a poignant portrayal of people who’ve suffered terrible losses, whose dreams have been shattered, whose longing is palpable. People who are waiting for “something different to happen . . . for something to change,” as one character sings.

The Broadway transfer comes with much of the cast and production staff intact, notably stars Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub, and director David Cromer. As Dina, the owner of a small cafe in Bet Hatikva, Lenk is mesmerizing, whether smoldering as she sings of watching Omar Sharif movies or seductively draping herself in a chair. Shalhoub’s Tewfiq, the band leader, gives a moving performance as a heartbreakingly somber man, seemingly on the brink — but not quite capable — of breaking through his insecurities.

And the longing touches many characters — the clarinetist who can’t quite finish his sonata, the couple about to split up, and especially the man, known only as Telephone Guy, who waits near a pay phone for a call from a past love.

Performances and staging are finely crafted throughout, but the brilliance of this piece is truly in the music and lyrics of David Yazbek. In a departure from his work on shows such as “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” he perfectly brings all these stories to life with rich ballads, smooth jazz, a touching lullaby, even some klezmer.

After the curtain call, when the band becomes just a band to perform a rousing instrumental, you wish it would go on forever.

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