By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Nov 29, 2019 at 4:01 PM

There could not be a greater contrast between the blockbuster musical "Hamilton" and the Tony-winning production that follows it in the Broadway Series at the Marcus Center, through Dec. 1.

"The Band’s Visit," based on a 2007 independent film of the same name, is an unconventional musical filled with a few ordinary people. There are no big dance numbers, no wars to win, no great declarations or sneering villains. As the production reminds you, both at the top and the close of the show, once there was an official Egyptian orchestra that was stranded for one night in Israel, on their way to a prestigious concert. "You probably didn’t hear about it," the show notes. "It wasn’t very important."

And that’s true – except for the dozens of profound emotional connections made by musicians, lost in the desert, and the people they meet in the painfully small and stagnant town of Bet Hatikva. Even while struggling to communicate through language and cultural barriers, they find meaningful common ground as they share music and snippets of essential relationships with family, friends and lovers. 

This subtle epic begins with the eight members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra waiting in line for bus tickets. Given the choice of two destinations that sound identical to outsiders, they choose the wrong one. Wearing sky blue uniforms trimmed with gold braid, carrying their instruments in cases, they look hopelessly out of place against the sunbleached, tan walls that dominate the set. And they are. Since there are no hotels in the tiny, windswept village and no more buses until the next day, the band stays with the families of three people they meet at a cafe: the owner Dina (a stunning Chilina Kennedy), the under-employed Itzik (Pomme Koch) and uptight, insecure Papi (Adam Gabay). All have complicated lives and unmet needs – longings – that the musicians witness and remedy in small ways as the night goes on. 

As Dina, Kennedy is riveting. At the cafe, she is cynical and deliberately unengaged. At home, describing her ex while swinging a large knife at a watermelon, she is bitter and vengeful. With long curly locks and a drapey floral dress of red and black, Kennedy’s Dina is barely contained sensuality as she demands the band’s reserved director Tewfiq (Sasson Gabay) to accompany her on a date. Sitting across from him in a dingy restaurant during her show-stopping song "Omar Sharif," she is a ravishing combination of dreams, nostalgia and vulnerability. Moving with the artistry of a ballerina, Dina mimics Tewfiq’s movements as he explains how to conduct an orchestra. It is one of the most beautiful and erotic moments contained a musical, especially notable because the two barely touch.

In Itzik’s house, the musicians are cause for celebration and sad remembrance. Avrum (David Studwell) recalls the night he met his late wife while playing Gershwin songs in a local band. As Simon (James Rana) plays a hauntingly beautiful, unfinished concerto on his clarinet, Itzik and his overworked wife Iris (Kendal Hartse) argue, while passing their fussy newborn back and forth, and wonder where their love for each other got lost.

Meanwhile at a local roller rink/disco, the smooth casanova and trumpet player Haled (Joe Joseph) tries to give the hopelessly awkward Papi some tips on dating. Joseph’s smooth jazz voice mesmerizes in "Haled’s Song About Love," even as he ambivalently ponders his own future: going home to an arranged marriage. And keeping vigil in the dark is Telephone Guy (Mike Cefalo), who waits for weeks for a call he is sure is coming any minute from a faraway girlfriend. 

These lonely people stuck in this desolate place all struggle with expressing the most crucial parts of themselves — through language, through song, through everyday actions. But they all find a measure of understanding and peace in this brief interlude. 

In the midst of this, the audience gains a new understanding of, and admiration for, Middle Eastern music, expertly performed by the actors onstage and augmented by a small pit orchestra. Composer David Yazbek captures the distinct sound of the region using the violin and clarinet, as well as the oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument, and a traditional goblet-shaped drum called the darbuka. Be sure to stay for the post-show concert, and revel in the universal power of music to soothe, enchant, celebrate and communicate feelings for which there are no words.