It’s impossible to resist the quirky appeal of “The Band’s Visit,” a modest but charming musical directed by David Cromer and featuring Tony Shalhoub. David Yazbek (music and lyrics) and Itamar Moses (book) have made magic from a slender fable about the accidental cultural exchange that takes place when an Egyptian military band finds itself stranded in an isolated Israeli town in the middle of the desert.
“Once, not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” That unassuming statement, projected on the back wall of Scott Pask’s plain and simple (and amusing) set, is enough to grab the most jaded audience.
Actually, the visit turned out to be very important, on a universally human level. But not at first glance, when Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria (Shalhoub), commander of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, turns up at a bus station in Israel with his little band of musicians. The pit musicians are onstage, trying to look like villagers, but members of that extraordinary band are occasionally called upon to pick up instruments of their own — and in some cases, play them very well.
Although the band is smartly outfitted in costumer Sarah Laux’s baby-blue ersatz-military uniforms, their government funding is in peril, and they absolutely must not screw up their assignment to perform at the initiation ceremony of the Arab Culture Center in Peta Tikva. The political and cultural significance of this mission weighs heavily on the fanatically steadfast Tewfiq, who stands ramrod straight (but is dying inside) in Shalhoub’s painfully honest performance.
Like other obsessive characters he has played, most notably Adrian Monk, the beloved OCD-wracked detective he inhabited for seven years on TV, Tewfiq transcends conventional character comedy. In Shalhoub’s hands, he is simultaneously funny and sad and a little bit crazy, and you absolutely have to love him. When disaster strikes, Tewfiq stiffens his spine and stands straighter. And strike it does when the musicians are misdirected at the bus station. Instead of sophisticated Petah Tikvah, they find themselves in Bet Hatikvah, a dreary town in the middle of the desert.
Thanks to the revolving set and some quicksilver lighting changes by Tyler Micoleau, we can take in the whole town at a glance. In “Waiting,” the first of the many nuanced (vaguely Arabic, vaguely Israeli, altogether enchanting) musical numbers in Yazbek’s wonderful score, the depressed residents are quick to tell the band what their uneventful life is like. And in “Welcome to Nowhere,” a gorgeous cafe owner named Dina (the fiery Katrina Lenk) is joined by a philosophical old man (the solid Daniel David Stewart) and other disheartened residents, to express their sense of isolation and their hopeless yearning for some kind of human connection.
With nowhere to go and nothing to do until the first bus arrives in the morning, the Egyptians are warily taken in by the Israelis, who reluctantly feed them, house them, and in one scene that is simply out of this world, entertain them at the circa 1970s roller rink.
Although no one exchanges a word about incendiary Arab-Israeli political matters, visitors and hosts slowly begin to acknowledge their common humanity. In “Hadid’s Song About Love” (sung with romantic intensity by Ari’el Stachel) the tall, handsome ladies’ man in the band takes pity on a young married man (endearing John Cariani) and shows him how to woo his wife.
There’s nothing big or grand here. Connections are made on little things, everyday things, common things we all share. The transcendent moment of the show comes when the so-called Telephone Guy (the fantastic Erik Liberman) makes one final, desperate effort to reach someone on that infuriatingly silent telephone. “Can you answer me?” he begs. And the entire ensemble does exactly that.