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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

‘The Band’s Visit’ finds beauty in the small things

The personal and quiet moments of this musical, staged at the Huntington Theatre, bring out real heart and simple joy.

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The cast of “The Band’s Visit” is pictured.

The first song in The Band’s Visit is called “Waiting” and introduces the residents of the quiet Israeli town of Bet Hatikvah as they live out their lives, just waiting for something exciting to happen. As an audience member, you might feel a similar sense of anticipation while watching the show as you wait for a big moment, a plot twist or a dramatic reveal. The big moment never comes, but that’s exactly what makes “The Band’s Visit” so special.

The musical, directed by Paul Daigneault and co-produced by the Huntington and SpeakEasy Stage, runs Nov. 10 through Dec. 17 at The Huntington Theatre. “The Band’s Visit,” which is based on a low-budget 2007 Israeli film, first won over audiences in 2016 by rejecting the traditional musical theater formula and trying something unconventional: The one-act show eschews big dance numbers and Broadway tropes in favor of a deeply moving story of human connection. The Huntington-SpeakEasy production brings “The Band’s Visit” to life onstage, reminding audiences there is more that unites us than divides us at a time when we need that message most.

The story is simple: In 1996, an Egyptian police orchestra is booked to perform at a concert in Petah Tikvah, Israel, but a ticket mix-up lands them in the fictional town of Bet Hatikvah instead. With no bus out of the tiny desert town until the next day, the locals offer the musicians a place to stay for the night. In several intertwined stories, connections are forged overnight between the locals and the unexpected visitors.

The ensemble cast is led by Jennifer Apple, who plays the charming café owner Dina. Apple’s charismatic performance demands attention, and her crystal clear voice rings through the theater, particularly in the hauntingly beautiful song “Omar Sharif.” In the main story, Dina takes in two of the band’s members, conductor Colonel Tewfiq (Brian Thomas Abraham) and the suave ladies’ man Haled (Kareem Elsamadicy). Abraham, in particular, commands the stage with his quietly authoritative presence. Stoic and reserved at first, he begins to open up after spending an evening with Dina.

In another plotline, local couple Itzik and Iris (Jared Troilo and understudy Emily Qualmann) take in two of the musicians, and what begins as an awkward dinner turns into an evening of honesty and connection. Clarinetist Simon (James Rana) shares his unfinished concerto, while Iris’ father Avrum (Robert Saoud) bonds with the visitors over their shared love of music and explains how music helped him find his late wife in the joyful song “The Beat of Your Heart.”

Elsewhere, socially awkward local boy Papi (Jesse Garlick) goes on a date at the town roller rink. After expressing his romantic anxiety in the hilarious “Papi Hears the Ocean,” he gets an assist from Haled, who helps him overcome his nerves. Weaving in and out of these stories is another local man, known only as “Telephone Guy” (Noah Kieserman), who waits by the town’s pay phone for a call from his girlfriend. Kieserman helps to tie the narratives together in “Answer Me,” the emotional climax of the show. Kieserman begins the song with an angelic voice as he waits desperately for a call, and the rest of the ensemble eventually joins in as they continue to search for answers in their own lives.

David Yazbek’s score, infused with Klezmer and Middle Eastern musical styles, is like nothing you’ve heard before in a musical, and his clever lyrics are filled with delightful rhymes and wordplay. The show’s beautiful orchestrations are elevated by a talented pit orchestra (who are sadly hidden behind the set) and the musicians within the story, who play their own instruments onstage. Transitions between scenes are punctuated by musical interludes in which the band members get to show off their incredible musical prowess. The show’s only weakness is its book, written by Itamar Moses, which tries to accomplish too much for a one-act musical. Certain scenes feel rushed, and some of the supporting characters, given only a few moments to shine, come and go without being fully developed.

Daigneault’s attention to detail in his direction is evident, as every ensemble member moves in lockstep with their castmates. The production is a visually stunning watch, too: Wilson Chin and Jimmy Stubbs’ ingenious set design effortlessly transforms the stage into a variety of locales, while Miranda Kau Giurleo’s costumes are spot-on, especially the musicians’ bright blue uniforms, which stand out amid the muted backdrop of the town.

The musical ends with a quiet farewell, as Tewfiq and his musicians say their goodbyes and finally make their way to Petah Tikvah. There are no twists, no flashy grand finale. That’s what makes “The Band’s Visit” so special; nothing is resolved neatly, just like in real life. Despite the show’s simplicity — or perhaps because of it — its message is so powerful, reminding audiences of the joy of music and the enduring power of human connection.

Summary “The Band’s Visit” comes to life at the Huntington with a moving story, a talented ensemble cast and a beautiful score.
4 Stars