About midway through Paul Daigneault’s exquisite and luminous production of “The Band’s Visit,” Tewfiq, the conductor of an Egyptian police orchestra, and Dina, an Israeli café owner, are swapping quotes from an Egyptian film they both like.
“Love in itself is hope,’’ says Tewfiq. “And hope is a reality in our lives. Who can live without hope?”
Two declarative sentences and one rhetorical question, each of them built on the same simple but powerful word, all three of them combining to form the bedrock of a remarkable musical that refuses to give up on that word.
In a geopolitical moment when holding on to hope is extraordinarily difficult, “The Band’s Visit” is a reminder that our experience of theater has not only to do with what we see and hear once we’re settled into our seats. There are times — and this is one of them — when our responses are ineluctably colored by events in the outside world.
The horrors that have unfolded in Israel and Gaza in the past six weeks can make “The Band’s Visit” — with its belief in building bridges one person at a time, and its message that to step across cultures is to take a step toward peace — seem naïve, even Pollyanna-ish.
It’s neither. The undertow of melancholy pervading “The Band’s Visit” reveals a musical that knows all about human sadness, and how many shapes it can take. But it also knows about the quite real possibilities for human connection when, say, Egyptians and Israelis join together in a vigorous rendition of “Summertime,” or when they whiz and totter around a roller-skating rink together.
David Yazbek’s score is a thing of beauty, utterly unimprovable. A band hidden upstage, as well as the performers portraying the Egyptian orchestra, capture all the vibrancy and poignancy of that score. The book by Itamar Moses is restrained, almost to a fault in spots. But overall, that restraint has the effect of forcing the audience to train our attention on small moments and small gestures — a focus that, in terms of generating an atmosphere of intimacy, pays off.
A first-time collaboration by the large Huntington and the midsize SpeakEasy Stage Company (where Daigneault is the founding artistic director), “The Band’s Visit” features knockout performances by Jennifer Apple as Dina and Brian Thomas Abraham as Tewfiq.
Essaying the role that made Katrina Link a star when “A Band’s Visit” opened off-Broadway and then, six years ago, on Broadway, Apple is an unstoppable, stage-seizing force. Her portrayal burns with intensity and a churning restlessness, depicting Dina as a woman who believes in action above all but is stymied by circumstance.
Apple is mesmerizing in her performance of the gorgeous “Omar Sharif,” in which Dina reminisces about watching Egyptian movies on a black-and-white TV with her mother as a child. (Of Sharif, Dina sings: ”He was cool to the marrow, the pharaoh of romance.”)
Abraham’s Tewfiq is gravely formal, starchy, and ultimately moving, conveying the sense of a man who’s comfortable being an authority figure (he’s a colonel) but is much less certain of himself in one-on-one interactions. Even as he moves toward a possible romance with Dina, Tewfiq projects a heaviness of spirit. The reasons for that become evident by the end of “The Band’s Visit.”
Dina and Tewfiq are thrown together when a transportation mix-up strands the Egyptian orchestra, attired in smart blue suits (costume design is by Miranda Kau Giurleo), in a small and sleepy Israeli town in the Negev Desert in 1996. (The set by Wilson Chin and Jimmy Stubbs transitions among several locations in a way that is both evocative and efficient.)
Jared Troilo, one of Boston’s finest actors, excels as Itzik, an employee at Dina’s restaurant, as does Emily Qualmann as Itzik’s desperately frustrated wife, Iris. (Qualmann substituted for Marianna Bassham, who usually plays the role, at Sunday’s performance.)
Also delivering textured portrayals are Robert Saoud as Avrum, Iris’s father; Kareem Elsamadicy as Haled, a trumpeter and a would-be ladies’ man whose come-on consists of asking women if they like Chet Baker; James Rana as Simon, the band’s assistant conductor and clarinetist; Jesse Garlick as the desperately shy, anxiety-riddled Papi; his crush, Julia, played by Josephine Moshiri Elwood, always an asset to any production; Fady Demian as Zelger, Papi’s friend; Anna, Zelger’s high-spirited girlfriend, played on Sunday by Jordana Kagan; and Noah Kieserman as the Telephone Guy, who waits anxiously near a pay phone in hopes of hearing from his beloved. Kieserman sings “Answer Me,” a spine-tingling ballad of yearning, with other members of the ensemble joining in to give voice to their private wishes.
“The Band’s Visit” puts its faith in individuals, in their power to make change, but it’s also realistic about the limits on that power. It begins and ends with the same words, but those words have acquired an enormous emotional weight on the journey from start to finish. Like much else in this exceptional musical, it’s likely to live in your memory for a long time.
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. Presented by the Huntington and SpeakEasy Stage Company. At the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave. Through Dec. 17. Tickets $30-$185. At huntingtontheatre.org or 617-266-0800.