The story depicted in "The Band's Visit" might not be based on factual events, but according to James Rana, the general themes in the show do ring true.
"It is just a story, but I think people can appreciate the universality of it," said Rana, who plays Tewfiq, an Egyptian orchestra leader and the central character in the 2018 Broadway musical that won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical. "It looks at human beings, and reminds us that even though we're different and come from different cultures, we can sympathize with each other."
Based on the 2007 film written and directed by Eran Kolirin, the staged musical version by David Yazbek (music and lyrics) and Itamar Moses (book) comes to Proctors on Tuesday for eight shows in six days. The Broadway production closed in April of this year after 589 performances, while the national tour began this past June in Providence and will visit 27 cities across North America.
The show opens with Tewfiq and his group of musicians mistakenly dropped off in a small desert town in Israel where the only place to find some culture and entertainment is a small cafe owned by a woman named Dina. The idea originally occurred to Kolirin, a native of Israel, when he was reading a travel book whose author wrote about feeling displaced and lost on his first trip to Israel. While the travel book author was helped by a friendly hotel clerk, in "The Band's Visit" Tewfiq is welcomed by Dina, and the two become friends despite their cultural differences.
"We might think we're opposites, but that doesn't mean we can't connect with each other," said Rana. "This is a beautiful story about human beings, and it has such wonderful meaning. It's a gift of joy to the world and I have been blessed to be a part of it. I am loving every moment and I'll keep doing this until someone asks me to leave."
Rana was part of the ensemble cast on Broadway and served as a standby for Tony Shalhoub, who won a Tony Award for his performance as Tewfiq. Rana also got to work with Sasson Gabai, the actor who played Tewfiq in the film and then did so again on Broadway after Shalhoub left the production.
"I only did it four times on Broadway as Tewfiq, but I also understudied several other roles," said Rana. "And I had a great opportunity to study Tony in the role. I also got to work with Sasson Gabai, and having the opportunity to watch those two guys closely, well, I consider just being around them the greatest acting lesson of my life. When I saw the film I connected to the character because he's quiet and kind of shy, and I'm sort of reserved myself."
Rana grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, and wasn't quite sure what to do with himself until he was old enough to be taking classes at nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University.
"I wanted to major in theater arts, but I was too nervous and just didn't think I was good enough," said Rana, whose father was born in India and whose mother was born in Austria. "I got into a screenwriting program but I was still pretty insecure. Then I got lucky when I decided to major in broadcasting and communication, and the college radio station hired me and put me on the air. I was playing music and hosting programs. WFDU, it became a wonderful outlet for me."
Rana developed enough confidence to audition for some regional theater productions, then landed some small parts on TV in shows such as "Third Watch" in 2003 and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" in 2004. More recently, he has had small gigs on "Chicago Fire" in 2015 and "Madam Secretary" in 2017. His focus, however, has remained live theater, and along with performing in shows he has written three plays himself, including "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Much of his work lately has been done with the Actors Shakespeare Company in Jersey City and the East Lynn Theater Company, also in New Jersey.
"I never know what's going to be around the corner," he said. "I love doing the theater, but I'd also like to do more television and films. Whatever work is meaningful. It's got to be something that touches people."
While Rana has been a busy actor in and around New York City, he has never performed in the Capital Region.
"I've been about as far north as the Catskills and that's it," he said. "But I've heard about Proctors and Capital Rep. I've always wanted to head up there and perform, so I'm very much looking forward to it."
Theater fans hoping to get a closer look at the production should attend Henry Schaffer ThreatreTalks, a special event held by Proctors following Thursday's 4 p.m. matinee on Jan. 2. The program is free that day to all ticketholders.
'The Band's Visit'
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: Opens Tuesday and runs through Sunday; performances at 7:30 Tuesday and Wednesday; 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $90.75-$25.75
MORE INFO: www.proctors.org or call (518) 346-6204