“Once not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt,” reads a projected title before the curtain rises on “The Band’s Visit.” “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.”
What follows in this quietly bewitching musical, the winner of a whopping 10 Tony Awards at the 2018 ceremony, might not be “important” enough to make the nightly news. But on a human scale, you sense that the events of this night will live on in these characters’ memories forever.
Based on the 2007 film of the same name by Israeli writer-director Eran Kolirin, “The Band’s Visit” hinges on a miscommunication that strands the eight members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra in a small Israeli town so sleepy it’s practically nonresponsive.
The Egyptian band has been invited to play at the opening of an Arab Cultural Center in the city of Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv. (“The Band’s Visit” is set in 1996, 17 years after the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.) When no one is there to greet them at the airport, the serious-minded bandleader Tewfiq (played here by Israeli actor Sasson Gabay, reprising the role he created on screen) determines they’ll complete the trip by bus.
But differences of language and accent set them instead on the road to the fictional sound-alike town of Bet Hatikva — with a “B,” the town’s residents inform their nonplussed visitors in the song “Welcome to Nowhere.” That “B,” they sing, might as well stand for “boring,” “barren,” “bland,” and other B-words we can’t print. Or as restless cafe owner Dina (an earthy Chilina Kennedy) sums it up, “basically bleak and beige and blah, blah, blah…”
Bet Hatikva is such a blip in the desert, in fact, that no more buses are due to come through until morning. But the town is also so small it has no hotels. And so Dina, who comes across as the town’s de facto mayor, decides to divvy up the musicians among the locals’ homes.
Dina takes on Tewfiq as well as Haled (lanky charmer Joe Joseph), the young trumpeter; Simon (James Rana), the clarinetist, and Camal (Ronnie Malley), the violinist, are sent home with cafe regular Itzik (Pomme Koch), whose relationship with his wife Iris (Kendal Hartse) is strained by their infant child and Itzik’s unemployment. Haled, a would-be ladies’ man who fancies himself a Chet Baker type, invites himself out on the town with Dina’s teenage employee Papi (Adam Gabay), leaving Dina to show Tewfiq the sights, such as they are.
And that, in terms of plot, is just about that. Some of these characters reveal hidden bits of themselves to one another over the course of the night. Regrets are given voice; longings are evinced but mostly kept unspoken.
Book writer Itamar Moses’ scenes mostly focus on two or three characters. Composer David Yazbek’s score is dominated by solos and instrumental tunes; they’re less traditional musical-theater numbers than musical interludes, erupting organically out of spoken dialogue, then receding back into the desert sand.
But what depths this desert holds. Yazbek, Moses, and director David Cromer — the latter a North Shore native with his own deep ties to Chicago’s theater community — share a keenly compassionate vision of these characters. That encompasses their yearnings, their sorrows, and above all their stubborn, ineluctable hope — that thing with feathers whose song is so difficult to silence.
That doesn’t mean you should expect any fairy-tale endings here. This is a musical with a grown-up sensibility and a gimlet eye — not cynical, but practical. Yet even entertaining one unexpected night’s worth of what-ifs seems to awaken something dormant in every one of these characters — a wish to finish something undone, or close a door on an old ache.
The authors use their tools sublimely. Moses allows the Egyptians and Israelis to speak among themselves in Arabic and Hebrew, respectively, without translating for us; when the two groups communicate with one another, it’s in fluent but hesitant English, imbuing every line and word choice with a sense of intentionality.
Yazbek, a very witty songwriter who’s made a career of musicalizing movies (“The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and most recently “Tootsie”), outdoes himself here, melding classical Arabic sounds — oud and darbouka figure alongside cello and sax in Jamshied Sharifi’s orchestrations — with stunningly evocative character songs.
The flashiest component of Scott Pask’s unpretentious scenic design (rendered in shades of beige, naturally) is a turntable, which Cromer uses judiciously in a staging that’s geared more toward emotional sensation than Broadway bells and whistles. It overtakes you gradually across its uninterrupted 100 minutes, its modesty initially disguising its insistent power. As Dina sings in “Something Different,” “nothing is as beautiful as something that you don’t expect.”
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.