The show involves an Egyptian police band stranded overnight in an Israeli desert town. “Welcome to nowhere,” the denizens sing with deadpan gazes and fleeting, sarcastic dance gestures. As one of the characters says, nothing very important happens as everyone figures out how to pass the night.
Still, that armload of awards was no accident. It’s a funny, moving show — and it one-ups the gloriously dry 2007 Israeli movie it’s based on by getting the band fully into the act, thanks to David Yazbek’s warm and witty score.
It’s remarkable how much of the understated film made it into Itamar Moses’s adaptation, directed with subtlety and a relaxed comic touch by David Cromer. The stage version even boasts the movie’s star Sasson Gabay, who plays Tewfiq — the disciplined leader of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra — with an air of gentlemanly diplomacy. (Gabay is one of several cast members who also played their parts on Broadway, including Joe Joseph as the flirtatious band member Haled and Pomme Koch as Itzik, a long-unemployed Israeli at odds with his wife.) Gabay’s Tewfiq is firm yet polite, and the magnetism he generates sweeps you toward the soul of the show.
Chilina Kennedy is Gabay’s opposite number as Dina, a cafe owner who is the de facto leader of the bored Israelis. Like all the roles, the tough, weary Dina is written without showbizzy nonsense, and Kennedy settles in well as Dina acquaints herself with Tewfiq and thinks about her life. The acting throughout the show requires close listening by the performers, because the Egyptians and the Israelis speak halting English to communicate, often looking for just the right word. The quiet spaces are rich, and Kennedy and Gabay appear to be hearing each other particularly well.
Very sneakily, the show turns into a celebration of music. You may not notice much when a fiddler edges onto a corner of the stage, or a percussionist joins in to bring Yazbek’s syncopations alive. But bit by bit, more of the music gets played live in front of you, adding to the vibrancy of Yazbek’s songs (the nine-piece ensemble generates Middle Eastern breezes with combinations of violin, cello, reeds and oud). The rhythms have a clever hitch, and the melodies get swoony in tunes such as “Omar Sharif” and “Haled’s Song About Love,” a woozy romance sung by Chet Baker fan Haled (played by Joseph with assurance and reserve). A love ballad aimed at an empty phone booth turns into a universal anthem, and that’s the way this piece gives you shivers.
The Egyptian band’s powder-blue uniforms look the same as in the movie (“His Sergeant Pepper suit,” Dina sings about Tewfiq), and the near-empty town of bland concrete structures is ably conveyed in Scott Pask’s set. (Also straight from the movie: the disco skating scene set to what sounds like a warped LP of Boney M.’s “Sunny.”)
The tempo is perfect; the performers move languidly, or not at all. That’s where a lot of the comedy comes from — strangers trying to figure one another out, monitoring themselves as they gradually let down their guard. The full ensemble comfortably inhabits this pace and, in due time, nails the punchlines. They also sharply etch portraits of loneliness and isolation that maybe ease a little bit, at least for a night. It’s all so simple, and just beautiful.
The Band’s Visit, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Itamar Moses. Directed by David Cromer. Costumes, Sarah Laux; lights, Tyler Micoleau; sound design, Kai Harada. Through Aug. 4 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. $45-$149, subject to change. 202-467-4600 or kennedy-center.org.