If you’ve ever been lost in a foreign country, you will sympathize with the uniformed 10-member Egyptian instrumental group in the enchanting musical “The Band’s Visit” as they find themselves in middle-of-nowhere Bet Hatikva, Israel, instead of the similar sounding city of Petah Tikva, where they are supposed to help inaugurate an Arab cultural center.
And this is 1996, when the internet was nascent and even if they’d had a cell phone, there would likely be no service. Instead, there is one public telephone (guarded by a lovelorn soul hoping for a call) in the small town so sleepy its residents sing about perpetually “Waiting” for something to change.
That something, however unlikely, turns out to be the lost members of this band who speak Arabic rather than Hebrew but find common ground with the locals in English (fortunately for us) and, through amusingly stilted dialogue, find common humanity as well.
The leisurely stories of their interactions for those few hours are utterly charming—and often deeply emotional—as residents put up band members for the night before their morning bus to Petah Tikva (say it right). But it’s the music woven throughout that’s the real story here.
As the characters interact—with two band members staying with passionate café-owner Dina (Janet Dacal) and another two put up by a family with a newborn baby and a whole lot of tension—there is always at least one instrument playing, whether clarinet, violin, cello, darbouka drum or oud.
The subtle emotions these instruments evoke heighten to sheer ecstasy whenever the talented band members play together, instrumental solos woven throughout their traditional Arabic music compositions.
Along the way, we also get delightful songs (music and lyrics by David Yazbek) that express the emotions playing out within and between characters through the evening. Hilarious early numbers like “Welcome to Nowhere”—as Dina and others greet the lost band—give way to more emotional songs like “The Beat of your Heart,” the sympathetic “Papi Hears the Ocean,” the ensemble's poignant “Answer Me,” and the sublime “Something Different,” in which Dina awakens to unexpected longings after spending time with Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay), the mature and modest band director.
Dina is the heart of the town, running the café like a boss but full of passions of all kinds, which the very talented Dacal fully embodies. The formal yet sensitive Tewfiq (whom Gabay portrays with perfect understatement) is her opposite, but makes her feel a new “strange spice” on her tongue, seeming to remind her of the music and poetry in her soul she once felt watching old Omar Sharif movies with her mother.
Elsewhere, suave band member Haled (Joe Joseph) helps young local Papi (Coby Getzug) talk to a girl without hearing the ocean rush through his ears. Other members stay with the young family of Itzik (Clay Singer) and Iris (Kendal Hartse), who can barely stand the pressure of being a mother while her husband has been “between jobs” for a while. And throughout the evening, a young man (Joshua Grosso) stands vigil by the payphone, waiting and waiting for his distant love to call.
These stories are fable-like yet touching as we see characters engage their deepest feelings, such as Itzik singing a bittersweet lullaby to his infant son about how he may not be as practical as his wife seems to want. But we feel his love and commitment to his family nonetheless. Emotions of all kinds thus slowly swirl through the evening on the “jasmine wind,” Dina sings about. As directed by David Cromer, all the acting is heartfelt, the musicians immersed in their music.
Set design (Scott Pask) grounds the production with detailed scenes on a revolving stage—regularly rotating from the payphone on the street to apartments to a café and even a disco roller rink—as we move back and forth among storylines. Costumes (Sarah Laux) are well suited to characters and scenes, including the band’s light blue military style uniforms and Dina’s transition from work jeans to a flowery, flowing dress, insisting on taking Tewfiq out at night.
Based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin, with its book by Itamar Moses, “The Band’s Visit” beautifully portrays how much can profoundly change over one evening even in a nowhere little town. This lovely and diverting show will gently put you in touch with your own emotions while sweeping you away with its transporting music.
“The Band’s Visit” continues at Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, through April 3, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $26 to $130 and can be purchased online at SCFTA.org or by calling the box office at (714) 556-2787. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing are required. Run time is 90 minutes without intermission.