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Katrina Lenk Is Broadway’s Most Magnetic Maven

November 1, 2017 by Suzy Evans
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(Photographed by Nathan Johnson)

Let’s get one thing out of the way real quick: You probably haven’t heard of Katrina Lenk.

Yet.

But if you’ve seen her onstage, you’ve definitely fallen under the spell of her seemingly effortless magnetism. Whether she’s dancing in the rain in “Indecent,” fiddling on the violin in “Once,” or soaring as the goddess Arachne in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” Lenk has a distinct way of disappearing inside her characters and leaving you wondering, Just who is that girl?

Everyone will know the answer to that question as soon as Lenk takes the stage at the Barrymore Theatre in “The Band’s Visit,” which opens on November 9. Based on the 2007 Israeli film by Eran Kolirin, the musical by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses follows an Egyptian police band that gets diverted on its way to Israel to a small desert town, where the locals take them in. Lenk plays Dina, the wry and confident café owner who finds herself drawn to the band leader.

“She’s one of these performers who, when you see her, you ask, ‘Well, where the hell has she been?!’ and apparently she’s been right here the whole time,” says “Band’s Visit” director David Cromer.

For the musical’s Off-Broadway premiere at Atlantic Theater Company in 2016, Lenk won the Lucille Lortel Award for outstanding leading actress in a musical, beating out the likes of Sutton Foster, and the Lortels named the show best musical over last year’s Tony victor, “Dear Evan Hansen.” When “The New York Times” theater critics compiled their Tony Awards predictions for the season, Ben Brantley listed Lenk’s performance in “The Band’s Visit” as one that “should have been nominated.” (Off-Broadway shows are not eligible for Tonys.)

In the same way that Cynthia Erivo splashed onto the scene in “The Color Purple” and Ben Platt dominated the press as the title character in “Dear Evan Hansen,” Lenk is poised to be the talk of the town, a marquee headliner in the making. The name on everybody’s lips, as the song goes, is going to be Katrina.

But the forthcoming fame and adoration is the farthest thing from her mind. On a Sunday afternoon, her day off from rehearsal, Lenk stands out as effortlessly relaxed among the coiffed and chic lunchtime crowd at The Modern at MoMA. Her hair is pulled back in a loose French braid, leaving chocolate-colored wisps framing her striking symmetrical and makeup-free face. Her piercing blue eyes seem to have a personality all their own. She’s paired a loose white t-shirt with a taupe, linen floor-length skirt. Forest green tank straps peek out from behind her t-shirt and camel leather backpack, draped over her angular shoulders.

Lenk possesses a certain je ne sais quoi or what her co-star Tony Shalhoub calls “star material.” “Upon meeting Katrina, my very first impression was that she was someone I’d known my whole life — and at the same time, unlike anyone I’d ever met,” Shalhoub says, calling her “an enigma.” “She seemed terribly shy and yet quietly confident. Deeply centered but just as vulnerable.”

That same vulnerability and shyness comes through as Lenk speaks softly and calmly amid the din of the bustling midtown restaurant. Every so often she’ll release a laugh louder than the cool, tempered atmosphere, and she’ll cover her face in embarrassment. When asked about what is certainly a career-defining moment, Lenk modestly brushes it off. “I’m the luckiest,” she says, knocking on the table. “It’s just work that I love to do, and I’m just so thrilled to get to do it. I think I’m trying to not think about the fact that it has any sort of elevated meaning career-wise.”

After all, it’s about the art, and Lenk sees art everywhere she looks. The menu at The Modern? Reads like poetry. The mini milk and sugar pitchers? Fascinating. A blank piece of paper with a one-word question at the top? Modern art. “Excuse me!” Lenk says with a laugh, pretending to wave over some of the wait staff as if a page of this reporter’s notes belonged in the museum.

“The Band’s Visit” marks Lenk’s fifth Broadway show — “Is it five?” she asks, as if the number never crossed her mind before — and her first time originating a role in a musical on the Main Stem. When director Cromer and the creative team were looking for someone to play Dina, they were concerned about finding someone as electric as Ronit Elkabetz from the film.

“We just hoped someone would come in who was profoundly original and sang like nothing you were accustomed to and was hard as nails and vulnerable and funny and knowing and innocent,” Cromer recalls. “Of course, we knew that wasn’t really going to happen, but then Katrina Lenk walks in and everyone’s job suddenly got a lot easier.”

However, Lenk didn’t think her audition went particularly well and didn’t allow herself to get her hopes up for the role, worn down from a lifetime of rejection as an actor. She came back in for callbacks three days in a row, because Cromer and company kept thinking there had to be a catch. “Turns out,” the director says, “there wasn’t.”

Yazbek has called Lenk’s rendition of “Omar Sharif” one of his favorite “versions of anyone singing any of my shows’ songs.” “I can’t even let that go into my ear,” Lenk says, shaking her head. “It’s just too much.”

Before rehearsals for the Broadway production began, Lenk travelled to Israel with the creative team, producer Orin Wolf, and cast members George Abud and Ari’el Stachel. They visited Yeruham, the town that inspired the fictional town Bet Hatikva in the musical, with Kolirin, who wrote and directed the movie. “The town is literally in the middle of the desert,” Lenk says. “We drove for hours and hours and saw just sand, rocks, more sand, and then this street goes off the main road through the desert and there’s this town. Then the town stops and there’s more desert after that. Just bizarre.”

They ate at the house of one of the families in the town. It’s tradition for many families to gather at one family’s house and share recipes to keep the history alive. Lenk and Abud also played music for the townspeople — him on the oud, her on the violin. While she doesn’t play in the show, Abud has been teaching her some Arabic songs.

Lenk says it’s difficult to say how the trip will inspire and change her performance, other than to add some memories of a real place to her mind as she plays Dina. “At any moment when we’re onstage I can pick from an actual experience I had of standing in the sand or eating the food or talking to someone or being in the sun,” says Lenk, calling it “sensory research.”

Lenk’s own origins are a world away from Yeruham. Born in Chicago and raised in both Illinois and Iowa, Lenk grew up gravitating toward all things artistic. She started taking dance classes at age 3, and she picked up the viola when she saw the Des Moines Symphony perform and was fascinated by the under-appreciated string instrument.

She participated in musical theater in high school, playing roles like Anita in “West Side Story.” (She really wanted to be Maria.) That casting might be a bit of a harbinger of the brave and boisterous broads Lenk has embodied over the course of her career. She’s never really been the typical ingénue, though she has played Peggy Sawyer a few times professionally. (Broadway producers take note: Lenk is an incredible tap dancer and has yet to show off the skill on the New York stage.) When it’s pointed out that she’s played a lot of women of strong conviction, she sighs and says, “I guess so. Huh,” as if it seems wrong to set any women — fictional or real — apart from each other.

Lenk moved to Los Angeles a few years after she graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied music and theater, to pursue film and television and ended up doing “everything but.” She became active in the theater scene, performing at the Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Repertory, and was plucked by director Kate Whoriskey, with whom she had worked in L.A., to understudy Annie Sullivan and Kate Keller in “The Miracle Worker” on Broadway. She never went on and made her way back to the “City of Angels” and the slog of temp jobs. When “Spider-Man” came through for open calls, she went in for Arachne but thought it was the end of the road for her performing career.

“It was one of those devastating auditions — I thought I did terrible,” Lenk remembers, adding that she almost quit acting. “It just felt like I was up against a brick wall constantly. I think so many people feel like this in their lives. You’re working really hard, but everything’s hard and nothing is being given to you at all. And then my agent called and said, they want you to come to New York for callbacks.”

Since “Spider-Man,” Lenk has been consistently working in New York, moving directly from that show into the cast of “Once” as Réza, giving her a chance to use her skills on the violin. She also played the strings, this time on the viola, in Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” on Broadway last season. As soon as the play closed, Lenk moved into rehearsals for “The Band’s Visit.” Lenk is a rare performer who has seamlessly made the move from musical to play and is a quadruple threat — singing, dancing, acting, and playing a musical instrument.

But despite her immense talent, she feels uncomfortable when all eyes are on her. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis but only to hit the ball over the net for the fun of it and not keep score. She also took an archery class recently and would love to explore that as a hobby in her free time, the amount of which is rapidly diminishing. She’s happiest when she’s with her cat, Wolfie, playing music, or performing.  She has a band called Moxy Phinx, a sort of performance art musical act in which Lenk performs her own music as an alterego, donning wigs and costumes.

“It came from really wanting to perform but not wanting the attention,” she says. “I don’t really like people looking at me too much, which seems completely ridiculous as a performer.”

She needs to get used to people looking at her, as it’s about to happen much more often. While she might be hiding inside her characters onstage in a sort of uncanny disappearing act (She’s even honed a different accent for all of her Broadway shows so far), it would be a shame for the world not to get to know the real Katrina. Even Shalhoub has a hard time looking away. “Doing a scene onstage with her presents a unique challenge,” he says. “It’s difficult not to become entranced, lose your way, and turn into a member of the audience.”

May we all fall under her spell.

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