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‘The Band’s Visit’ kindles connections

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

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‘The Band’s Visit’ kindles connections
(Left to right) Marianna Bassham, Andrew Mayer, Robert Saoud, James Rana and Jared Troilo in The Huntington and SpeakEasy Stage co-production of “The Band’s Visit.” PHOTO: T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Even in dark times, people can touch one another with their shared humanity. Such connections abound in “The Band’s Visit,” the 90-minute dose of musical theater magic on stage at The Huntington Theatre.

The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra of Egypt arrives in Bet Hatikvah, a fictional hamlet in the Negev Desert in Israel. They soon learn that they took the wrong bus and must await another the next day to reach Petah Tikva, where they are to perform at the Israeli city’s new Arab Cultural Center. Dina, the town’s hard-bitten café owner, leads her neighbors in offering hospitality to the stranded musicians. With humor and a light touch, the musical renders the band’s night in Bet Hatikvah through three poignant encounters that leave all a bit better off.   

With a libretto by Itamar Moses and music and lyrics by David Yazbek, “The Band’s Visit” is based on Eran Kolirin’s 2007 film of the same name. After an Off-Broadway premier in 2016, “The Band’s Visit” transferred to Broadway, winning 10 Tony Awards in 2018, including one for best musical.

Jennifer Apple and Brian Thomas Abraham in “The Band’s Visit.” PHOTO: T. CHARLES ERICKSON

In Boston, the show, running through Dec. 17, is the first co-production by the Huntington Theatre and SpeakEasy Stage Company and is directed by SpeakEasy Stage founder and artistic director Paul Daigneault.

A lot happens in one night in “The Band’s Visit,” as its strong 14-member cast draws the audience into the growing rapport between band members and their hosts. With spare, poetic staging, the intermission-free production allows its many characters’ stories to unfold at an unhurried pace. The scenic design by Wilson Chin and Jimmy Stubbs keeps scene shifts fluid and frames performances in which every element counts, rewarding the audience’s close attention. With costumes by Miranda Kau Giurleo and choreography by Daniel Pelzig, characters communicate through movement as well as songs that emerge from the moment rather than show-stopping “numbers.”

Mingling Arabic, klezmer, jazz and pop music are keyboardists José Delgado (music director) and Daniel Rodriguez (associate conductor), bassist Mike Rivard, and Herdi Xha on drums and Arabic percussion; along with, on stage, Joe LaRocca on reeds, percussionist Fabio Pirozzolo, cellist Wick Simmons, and Mac Ritchey, who performs a fierce oud solo.   

A steadfast figure of hope is Telephone Guy (Noah Kieserman), who carries his prop, a phone booth, from scene to scene as he awaits a call from his girlfriend.

James Rana reprises his Broadway role as the compassionate Simon, the band’s assistant conductor and clarinetist. He and Camal (Andrew Mayer), a violinist, stay at the home of the anguished Iris (Marianna Bassham), her earnest but aimless husband Itzik (Jared Troilo), and their newborn as well as Iris’s warm father Avrum (Robert Saoud). Their visit kindles touching connections.

Haled (Kareem Elsamadicy), the band’s dashing trumpet player and Chet Baker wannabe, joins his new friends Papi (Jesse Garlick) and Zelger (Fady Demian) and their dates at a roller-skating party and stirs a joyful bond between two withdrawn people. 

Brian Thomas Abraham is convincingly stolid as Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, the band’s conductor, and Jennifer Apple is a life force as Dina. She invites him for supper and a stroll. She gets him singing in Arabic and they share enthusiasms — fishing for him, legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum for her — as well as heartbreaks. Later, Dina sings of finding beyond “these walls I build,” “something new, I didn’t notice I’ve been hoping for.”