Regional Reviews: Boston
The Band's Visit
This song is the musical highlight of The Band's Visit, the Tony Award-winning musical now playing at the Huntington Theatre, with a beautifully delicate score by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses. Dina sings of Sharif as the "pharaoh of romance," but her knight in shining armor (or as we see him, in a crisp blue band uniform) is the conductor of a traveling orchestra and a man of few words. As Dina will learn, the act of genuine connection is something stranger, and more fragile, than all the movies she's grown up with.
The palpable desire for connection powers this quietly moving production of The Band's Visit, a co-production from The Huntington and SpeakEasy Stage directed by SpeakEasy's Artistic Director Paul Daigneault. This is the musical's first staging in Boston since it opened on Broadway in 2017, and it's a perfect match for these two theatre companies who excel at presenting contemporary work in an intimate setting. The story is not a sweeping romance like the films Dina savored as a girl; instead, the events of the show gently play out over twenty-four hours as two groups of people briefly intersect and come to know each other just a little more.
The titular band, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Egypt, has arrived in Bet Hatikvah by mistake, through a miscommunication at the bus station; they were scheduled to play a concert in the similarly named Petah Tikvah. There are no return buses for the rest of the day, and Dina and her friends generously offer to house the visiting musicians for the night. Instantly, Dina takes a liking to Tewfiq, the band's leader, and convinces him to take her out.
The musical teems with humor and vibrancy, but its most resonant moments are in the silences between words. Dina and Tewfiq's bond is forged on what remains unspoken between them. When he begins to open up to Dina, singing an Arabic ballad in honor of his late wife ("Itgara'a"), she does not understand the text but she connects to the beauty of his music: "And I don't know what I feel / And I don't know what I know / All I know is I feel something different."
As sparks ignite between Dina and Tewfiq, we see the effects of these unexpected visitors rippling across town. There is the boyish Itzik, who welcomes two musicians to share his home for the night with his father-in-law, his baby, and his overworked wife Iris. Then there is Papi, who tries to play it cool around the ladies but freezes up out of fear every time he gets near a girl. Waiting anxiously in the background is a young man, standing by the town's lone public pay phone, imagining that this is the night his girlfriend will finally call. Through their brief, but impactful, interactions, each of the locals learns something from their visitors, from how to be more confident around the ladies (as Haled teaches the anxious Papi) to how to work through a strained marriage (for Itzik and Iris).
Jennifer Apple is irresistible as Dina, a woman hungry for something more. She is alluring but also brash and tempestuous, with a tough exterior that allows her to command a room. In Apple's performance, we feel the longing that Dina keeps carefully guarded, an aspiration to see beyond the limitations of her small town. Opposite her, Brian Thomas Abraham is solid as the stoic Tewfiq, opening up slowly, achingly, as the two grow to understand each other.
The rest of the ensemble is equally strong. Jared Troilo, in particular, excels as Itzik, the Puckish young father whose immaturity leads him and Iris to the breaking point. Near the end, he sings a beautiful, almost-whispered lullaby to his baby that illuminates his hopes for his son and his fear of being an inadequate partner and father.
Yazbek's score is a clever extension of Moses's book, reflecting how the unexpected arrival of a traveling band of outsiders compels the community to vocalize their most guarded desires. Song dips in and out of the narrative, from conventional numbers to small, gossamer fragments of music. Of all of Yazbek's musicals (from The Full Monty to Tootsie), this may be his best work; it's a deceptively simple score in which each note feels necessary and vital, a delightful mashup of classic musical comedy intermingled with Middle Eastern harmonies and old-school jazz.
By the end of the show, these disparate pieces of song come together in two powerful moments: a ballad for the full ensemble, uniting everyone's voices for the first time (led by the excellent Noah Kieserman as the Telephone Guy); and, of course, the long-awaited concert from a crackerjack set of onstage musicians. Major props go to musical director José Delgado, who makes the musical tapestry of the show feel effortless and gives the spotlight to an amazing group of dual actor-musicians.
The Band's Visit opens and closes on the same, somewhat irreverent, description for this brief, but impactful, twenty-four hours: "You probably didn't hear about it. It wasn't very important." But as with the soft caress of a clarinet soothing a baby to sleep, or the seductive tones of Umm Kulthum uniting two lonely souls, even the smallest moments can have a profound effect.
The Band's Visit, jointly presented by The Huntington and SpeakEasy Stage, runs through December 17, 2023, at the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston MA. For tickets and information, please visit www.huntingtontheatre.org, call 617-266-0800, or visit the Huntington Theatre box office in person.