Map to success

Katrina Lenk. Courtesy Ghostlight Records.

Katrina Lenk is on a winning streak. In 2017, the Northwestern University-trained actress won raves and awards for her performances on Broadway in Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” and off-Broadway as Dina in David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’ musical adaptation of “The Band’s Visit.”

Currently, she can be seen reprising her role as Dina in the Broadway production of the play that is based on the 2007 movie of the same name, co-starring alongside Tony Shalhoub. The musical, about an Egyptian touring band that ends up temporarily stranded in a small Israeli town after arriving there by mistake, seems like a good fit for a travel issue. We had the pleasure of speaking with Katrina during the spring of 2018, before the announcement of her Tony Award nomination.

Please pardon me for opening with an obvious question such as this, but had you seen the movie “The Band’s Visit” prior to being cast as Dina in the Broadway musical?

“I wasn’t aware of the movie. But when I got the audition for it (the musical), of course, I wanted to see what it was before I went in, so that I had an idea of the tone and a sense of the story and the place in the movie. I fell in love with it immediately. When the callbacks happened, I watched it one other time. I said, ‘I can’t watch it anymore.’ I loved it so much and the temptation to copy everything in there would be too great, I think. What I love about what (director David) Cromer, and also (book writer) Itamar (Moses) and (songwriter David) Yazbek have done with the show is that there are definitely moments where we pay homage to the movie. We’re not trying to avoid the movie at all. Certain scenes are set up to mirror how things were in the movie. We lovingly refer to the movie a lot in the show.”

What does it mean to you to be the actress originating the role of Dina on Broadway?

“It’s a huge honor. And terrifying and thrilling and wonderful. Ronit Elkabetz, the woman who played Dina in the movie, has since passed away. She was a wonderful and revered actress in Israel and Europe. I’m so inspired by what she did. I feel honored and also unworthy to get to bring the role into the theater. But I feel very lucky that I get to do it.”

You also have the distinction of being Dina on the “The Band’s Visit: Original Cast Recording.” What does it mean to you have your performance captured for posterity in that way?

“That’s also terrifying (laughs). We did it so quickly. I’ve been in the studio many times before, recording records with bands. My experience was that it takes hours. You could spend a week on one song. We had one day to do all of the singing and some of the band arrangements. It was a very quick process, which can be good. When you don’t belabor every detail, which can often happen in the studio, it can be great. Because we were used to doing the show and singing the songs every night, in a sense, being in the studio for a long time, probably wasn’t a great necessity. We all knew what we were doing.”

In addition to doing a spot-on Israeli accent, you also nail Israeli sarcasm… (she laughs)…as in the song “Welcome to Nowhere.” Was this something you were aware of before?

“Israeli sarcasm? I had a couple of friends from Israel that I knew previously. I was always like, ‘They don’t like me. I don’t understand. What’s going on (laughs)?’ Getting to delve further into it, meeting more people from Israel and learning more about the culture and history of the place, now I understand why. And I love it even more. I have a deep affection for the Israeli sense of humor (laughs).”

Dina also gets to sing “Omar Sharif,” one of the most beautiful songs in the show. What does singing that song mean to you?

“I fell in love with that song when I was learning it for the audition. I was so moved by how smartly and beautifully Yazbek has written the song. It has a sense of being familiar in that I love all those classic songs from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Then it has all the colors of the Arabic music. It sounds familiar and strange at the same time. I love that so many people are responding to it as I did when I first heard it. I’m so proud to be able to say, ‘Look, you guys. Listen to this cool song (laughs).’ That I get to sing it for people is a thrill.”

You mentioned recording with bands. I interviewed you for the first time in 2001 when you were in the band Mabel Mabel. When you were in Mabel Mabel, did you ever show up at the wrong venue on the night of a show like the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra does in “The Band’s Visit”?

“No. However, there were times when I wished that we were in the wrong place (laughs). We’d show up to a place and be like, ‘Oh, what? Where are we?’ Hoping ‘Please don’t let this be the place (laughs).’”

Like you, your co-star Tony Shalhoub has midwestern/Great Lakes roots. What has your experience of working with Tony been like?

“He is wonderful! Very generous as a person and also onstage. Very much into, ‘What is the story? How can we work on telling this story together?’ Very much a team player. He’s also very funny, of course. There’s a lot of laughter backstage. It’s a joy.”

As I’m sure you are aware, your name has been mentioned in terms of Tony Award buzz for “The Band’s Visit.” What would it mean to you to win a Tony for this show?

“That’s kind of a tricky question. It’s something that is a great honor. It’s also something that most kids that grow up in the theater are aware of, watching the Tony Awards and thinking, ‘Maybe someday…’ It’s a wonderful thing that could happen. It could also be distracting in a way to only think about that or have that affect the work you are doing, as well as the sense of community you have with everyone else. It’s also a way to celebrate all the wonderful work that’s happening and not necessarily a competition. As an actor in a show that might get this kind of attention, it’s a matter of just focusing on the story we are trying to tell and making it the best we can make it.”

Katrina Lenk performs the role of Dina in “The Band’s Visit,” currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street in New York City. Tickets are $49 to $99. Visit thebandsvisitmusical.com for more information. The Tony Awards will be held June 10 at 8 p.m. at Radio City Musical Hall in Manhattan.

Lenk also appears on an upcoming installment of “The Good Fight” on cbs.com.

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