Theater Review: “The Band’s Visit” — Revelations of Commonality
By David Greenham
This well-directed and -performed production of a musical about the universal longing for connection delivers a stirringly heartfelt experience.
The Band’s Visit. Music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Book by Itamar Moses. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Choreography by Daniel Pelzig. Music direction by José Delgado. Scenic design by Wilson Chin and Jimmy Stubbs. Costume design by Miranda Kau Giurleo. Lighting design by Aja M. Jackson. Sound design by Joshua Millican. A co-production of The Huntington Theatre Company and SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Huntington, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston, through December 17.
In these American days of divisiveness, name calling, and the general condemnation of people who “aren’t like us,” what a shock it would be to discover that we all have more in common than all the harmful rhetoric might suggest.
In 2018 — which now seems like decades ago — The Band’s Visit, a 90-minute one-act musical, improbably took Broadway by storm. All the more shocking: the show, based on a 2007 Israeli independent film, contained few of the glamorous trappings of a traditional Broadway musical. Missing are big production numbers, swelling with sharp and angular choreography, a cartoonish plot, propelled by formulaic smiles and hummable tunes, and a boffo inspirational ending.
Instead, this surprisingly mature musical details a subtle, moving, and thought-provoking story of loss, one filled with loneliness, ironic mistakes, and missed opportunities. There are challenges for American audiences: the Middle Eastern musical style will be unfamiliar to many and the dialogue contains Arabic, Hebrew, and stunted English with a strong accent. None of that cultural amalgamation lessens the impact of this generously spirited show.
The tale is set in 1996. The Egyptian Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra is booked to travel to Israel to perform at an important concert in the arts-rich Israeli city of Petah Tikva. A linguistic misunderstanding at the airport sends them off course. They end up way down in the country’s south, deep in the Negev desert in the tiny fictional town of Bet Hatikva. Locals Dina (Jennifer Apple), Itzik (Jared Troilo), and Papi (Jesse Garlick) promise the band members that their visit to their village will be terrible. They sing: “This is Bet Hatikva with a B — like in boring, like in barren, like in bullshit, like in bland, like in basically bleak and beige and blah, blah, blah.”
The Band’s stoic leader and conductor, Tewfiq (Brian Thomas Abraham), tries to find a way to correct the mistake, but there’s no bus out of town until the next day. Although they are reluctant to admit it, the strangers have no option but to spend the night. Thankfully, Dina takes charge and arranges makeshift lodging for the unexpected guests.
Dina brings Tewfiq and trumpeter Haled (Kareem Elsamadicy) to her apartment. She makes Itzik invite clarinetist Simon (James Rana) and violinist Camal (Andrew Mayer) to stay with his wife Iris (Marianna Bassham) and their baby, along with Iris’s visiting father Avrum (Robert Saoud).
The arrangement generates three small stories that take place over the course of the evening. Dina and Tewfiq visit a local cafeteria for dinner; Itzik, his family, and guests have a sometimes-challenging dinner at home; and Haled meets up with Papi to tag along on a double date at a roller-skating rink with Zelger (Fady Demian), his girlfriend Anna (Emily Qualmann), and painfully shy Julia (Josephine Moshiri Elwood).
As the trio of narratives progress in unplanned ways, we also watch the patient struggles of the Telephone Guy (Noah Kieserman), who is waiting for his girlfriend to call. He’s been standing by the local pay phone for a month: no one else believes she’ll call, but he is confident that the phone will ring.
Each of the stories confidently explores the emotional depths of the leading characters: Dina and Tewfiq share the loss of the idealistic plans they imagined about love; Itzik and Iris’s marriage is failing; Avrum recalls with great joy the first time he saw his late wife; Simon seems to discover the inspiration that’s needed for him to finish a concerto he’s writing; and Papi’s fear of how to win over Julia begins to disappear thanks to Haled’s support and advice.
Other nonspeaking members of the band variously come in and out, accompanying the revelations with songs that dramatically enhance the primary scenes.
The problem of changing the locations of four stories, told simultaneously, has been cleverly solved by Wilson Chin and Jimmy Stubbs’s deceptively complex set. The staging’s set pieces seamlessly move in and out: the transitions are simple and crisp. (The choreography shares that virtue as well.) A wonderful set change occurs as late as the curtain call: a wall that’s designed to look like a parked bus is raised to reveal the rest of the members of the orchestra. It also serves as a sort of makeshift party platform for the final musical numbers. Also fun is the peripatetic public phone cubicle that the Telephone Guy rolls around the stage during most of the production as he patiently waits and waits.
Miranda Kau Giurleo’s costumes seem inspired by the original designs, especially Dina’s ensembles and the powder blue military-looking band outfits. Given that so many singers and musicians are milling about the stage, Joshua Millican’s sound design needs to be spot on. It is.
Only Aja M. Jackson’s lighting seems to intrude on underlining the material’s nuances. Pin spots frequently frame the soloists as the rest of the stage lighting dims. For me, the impact — with star turn framing — often served to separate the song from the dramatic context. The sumptuous songs and music can hold their own — no need to add a nudge of “the limelight.”
Despite the separateness of the stories and the ever-changing settings, the ensemble comes off as a beautifully coordinated team long before the glorious “Answer Me” number, which features the Telephone Guy’s (Kieserman) wonderful voice calling the entire company into a splendid unity.
But it’s not the message of universal yearning that really drives The Band’s Visit: it is the compelling depth of its characters. Front and center is the unusual and absorbing interaction between Apple’s Dina and Abraham’s Tewfiq. The highlight of the production is Dina’s wonderful “Omar Sharif,” where she sings of her love for the music of famous Arab singer Umm Kulthum and the movies of her childhood, particularly the 1960 Egyptian film The River of Love, which starred Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. Dina and Tewfiq charmingly share their passion for this cinematic romance.
Needless to say, The Band’s Visit isn’t one of those “wrap everything up in a tidy bow” entertainments. Much like the history of the land where the story is set, this musical is untidy. No easy answers are provided. But, in this well-directed and -performed production, the show’s powerful look at the longing for connection makes for a stirringly heartfelt experience.
David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the former executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.