When Katrina Lenk says her feet never touched the ground in her Broadway debut, as a replacement in Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, she's not telling you how deliriously happy she was—though she was.
Lenk is being literal: Playing Arachne, the show's magical spider-woman, she was suspended in a gigantic web throughout. Her ability to fly and enjoy it—crucial to landing the role—was honed with a summer job "swimming" over the heads of the audience at Universal Studios. "You just never know where random experiences are gonna take you," she says.
Her resumé provides a good example: her ability to play the violin and dance at the same time was on view in Once; in Indecent, she fiddled (again), performed David Dorfman's vivid choreography and spoke and sang in Yiddish.
She adds Hebrew and a heavy Israeli accent to her lexicon in her latest show, The Band's Visit, which starts previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre this month. And, instead of dancing on air, this time she will dance sitting down. "She's a Renaissance woman," says Patrick McCollum, the show's choreographer.
The Band's Visit. Photo by Ahron R. Foster
Lenk is Dina, the seemingly hard-boiled Israeli who welcomes seven stranded Egyptian musicians to her hole-in-the-wall desert cafe. She created the role off-Broadway last December, winning the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical in the process.
The show, which was named Best Musical by the New York Drama Critics' Circle, uses a refreshingly casual style to tell interlocking stories as its mismatched misfits connect. The approach accurately represents the laconic 2007 Israeli movie on which the show was based.
Lenk "loved, loved, loved" the film, she says, but her first thought was "How is this gonna be a musical?" Music, and its power to communicate across cultures, is at its heart, but the movie seemed too full "of silence and awkwardness" to translate well to the stage. "Somehow," she says, "David Yazbek [the composer] and Itamar Moses [the book writer] made that work."
The challenge for McCollum was to make numbers move without resorting to what Lenk calls "the thing that happens in musicals—suddenly we're singing and dancing!" David Cromer, the director, wanted the show firmly grounded in everyday reality.
To that end, the Israelis speak Hebrew amongst themselves, the musicians stick to Arabic, and when the members of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra must communicate with the locals, or vice versa, they use English.
In one of the show's most magical numbers, Dina and the bandleader, played by Tony Shalhoub, sit opposite each other in a restaurant. She tells him how her lonely girlhood was perfumed by two of Egypt's most celebrated cultural exports, the singer Umm Kulthum and the movie star Omar Sharif.
Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub. Photo by Ahron R. Foster
As staged for the Atlantic Theater Company premiere, Lenk sang Yazbek's sinuous, Middle Eastern melody while curving her arms and curling her long fingers, tracing lacy, arabesque patterns in the air. Tossing back her head and shoulders, her torso ecstatically arched, she expressed Dina's complete surrender to an intoxicating memory without ever getting up from her chair.
In the run-up to starting rehearsals for the Broadway production of The Band's Visit, Lenk and McCollum were planning to spend some time together doing Gaga technique. Choreographing on Lenk, McCollum says, "is a dream—she's so cool and relaxed."
And Lenk returns the compliment. She's quick to credit collaboration for the show's success, citing the Israeli Americans and Arab Americans in the cast, and even getting in a plug for the Moroccan-born Egyptian-dialect coach. "There was a lot of sharing," the Midwest native says, "and the movement came out of all of that."