Theater Review: THE BAND’S VISIT (The Huntington and SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston)

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by Lynne Weiss on November 17, 2023

in Theater-Boston,Theater-Regional


Once, not very long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important. These sentences, projected on a screen, are the opening of The Band’s Visit, the musical that won 10 Tony Awards in 2018. Directed by Paul Daigneault with choreography by Daniel Pelzig, the Boston premiere of this highly-anticipated production — delayed due to COVID — is just the latest in the Huntington’s string of triumphs under new artistic director Loretta Greco. I wondered, given current events not only in Israel-Palestine but locally at Boston’s many universities, how a show about unexpected friendship between Arabs and Jews would go over. The answer, in this case, is very well. As one Israeli sings to an Egyptian in “Something Different,” “Nothing is as beautiful as something you don’t expect.”

  Cast of The Band’s Visit

Based on the Israeli film of the same name, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, it’s a story that starts with a misunderstanding. A group of Egyptian musicians—the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra—end up in a drab and boring desert town in Israel due to their inability to properly pronounce the name of the place they are trying to get to when buying their bus tickets.

 Marianna Bassham, Andew Mayer, Robert Saoud, James Rana, Jared Troilo;
 Jennifer Apple, Brian Thomas Abraham

Because there are no other buses until the next day, and because the town has no hotels, members of the band end up spending the night in the homes of three residents. Through the power of music, layers of grief and fear are peeled away in the course of this adult chamber musical. Small miracles occur: love-starved Dina (Jennifer Apple) gets to reenact a brief scene from her favorite movie with band leader Tewfiq (Brian Thomas Abraham) taking the role of Egyptian leading man Omar Sharif; widower Avrum (Robert Saoud) relives the moment of meeting his late wife; Itzik (Jared Troilo) recognizes his responsibilities to Iris (Marianna Bassham) as a husband and father; painfully shy Papi (Jesse Garlick) learns how to court Julia (Josephine Moshiri Elwood) thanks to instruction from Haled (Kareem Elsmadicy), a man who has never courted a woman because he will have an arranged marriage.

 Kareem Elsamadicy, Jesse Garlick, Josephine Moshiri Elwood;
Jennifer Apple, Brian Thomas Abraham

The music, under the direction of José Delgado, is crucial. And fantastic. What a delight to enjoy the score, played by an 8-piece orchestra behind the screen at the back of the stage (joyously revealed at the end) as well as the terrific clarinet work by Joe LaRocca  and percussionist Fabio Pirozzolo on the traditional Egyptian darbouka, or goblet drum (as Simon, one of the longest running members of the band, James Rana also plays clarinet on stage). The show includes not only Egyptian and Arab musical styles and instrumentation, but cites influences ranging from Chet Baker and George Gershwin to the Beatles and Michael Jackson. At one point, the whole audience clapped along with the beat of an instrumental number, but for the most part, this is a “quiet” musical. There is singing and dancing, but there are no big production numbers. Most of the songs involve only one or two people; the exception is the joyous “The Beat of Your Heart” in which Avrum, Itzik, Simon, and Camal evoke the power of romantic love. These solos and duets give the songs both tenderness and a certain dignity, exactly the emotional tone one might expect in an experience of intimacy with a stranger.

 Noah Kieserman, Mac Ritchey, Jared Troilo;
Cast of The Band’s Visit

The evocative music, along with Wilson Chin and Jimmy Stubbs’s scenic design and Miranda Kau Giurleo’s costume design, go a long way toward placing us in the Negev Desert in 1996, a time when Egypt was actively engaged in peace efforts in the region. Nonetheless, the first women we see in this play are in Israeli military uniforms, reminding us that peace is not a given in this environment. 

Jennifer Apple, Brian Thomas Abraham

At the end of the play, the Israelis and the Egyptians still speak different languages. They are still strangers, with a lot of potential for misunderstandings. Even so, they have glimpsed one another’s shared hopes and disappointments and are able to say shalom aleichem and alaikum salaam and know that despite the differences, they mean the same thing.

Cast of The Band’s Visit

photos by T. Charles Erickson

The Band’s Visit
The Huntington in a co-production with SpeakEasy Stage
Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave. near Symphony Hall in Boston
Tues-Thurs at 7:30; Fri & Sat at 8; select Sun at 7pm
matinees: select Wed at 3; select Sat and Sun at 2:30
ends on December 10. 2023 EXTENDED to December 17, 2023
for tickets, call 617.266.0800 or visit The Huntington

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

John Tobin December 17, 2023 at 6:29 pm

Thank you so much for this wonderful production. In the present day fraught situation, it was a ray of hope for all humans.


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