A triple threat and then some, Katrina Lenk is an actor I’d never of heard before seeing her illuminate David Yazbek’s stunning “The Band’s Visit” at the Atlantic Theatre Company earlier this year. Then, later in the season, this exquisite apparition — no other word, really — came out on stage in Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” and began singing the most soul-satisfying song, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” that was like one gorgeous present to the audience.
I was thrilled to hear her and castmate Adina Verson reprise that song as a highlight of the always sparkling and resolved to have a serious sit-down with this dramatic chameleon who can be both a blasé Israeli woman and a Jewish lesbian starring in Scholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance” (the subject of Vogel’s backstory piece) but, in reality, hails from Iowa.
“I still can’t quite believe my luck in landing these two projects,” the vibrant, vivacious actress told me when we met at the citizenM Hotel on West 50th Street. “I’m so thrilled that ‘Indecent’ kept moving forward because I started with it two years ago at Yale. And to get to bring it to Broadway is a pretty unique and amazing experience.”
I told Lenk that “Indecent” is almost singlehandedly bringing brains and sophistication back to Broadway, the land of “Shrek, the Musical,” “Aladdin,” and every other dreary family-oriented piece of cheese aimed at 10-year-old minds, if that. To sit in the Cort Theatre and watch it come to vibrant life, you feel, as people did back in the 1960s and ‘70s, that hip downtown had finally arrived uptown.
Smiling, Lenk responded, “I was just thinking back to all of the crazy things we did in previous versions. One was the ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’ number, which started as a big production number, and Adina and I did cartwheels off one another while someone was doing a split. It was just crazy.
“What was really neat about watching [director] Rebecca Taichman and Paula Vogel work together was while they may have an idea and then scrap it, the ghost of what had been remains. So no matter what changed, it was still marked by what it had been, so all the previous iterations of the play are still there, but like little shadows in the corners.
“How did I land my part? My agents got for me one of those last-minute auditions where it’s like tomorrow. I had to read the play quickly and absorb it. Luckily, Rebecca was really great in the audition room. I had come in with something prepared, and she gave me some suggestions that were the exact opposite of that. She let me go into the hallway and prepare what she had given me before she let me back in the room. So I was in love with her and that’s a rare thing — to have a working relationship with a director, right off the bat.
“It’s challenging, but in the best way like a really big piece of cake — I don’t know if I have room for it, but I’m gonna try! I love that we all get to play five or six characters, which all have a common thread and finding that out and the differences between them was really fun. It was all about each character’s subtle physicality and how they think of the world and carry themselves in it. It was really fun, yet challenging. I would get frustrated with myself: ‘Why can’t I figure it out?’ But when you do, all these doors open up in your mind.
“This was the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had. Also, the cast would help figure it out for the transitions, like, ‘If you need to be there, I can go and get that and bring it.’ Such teamwork. Each character is influenced by the work of the other actors. Like you said, it’s very organic in the way things twist around each other.
“The music is so beautiful. We now take it for granted, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the ‘God of Vengeance’ theme.’ But Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva actually wrote that when we were in the rehearsal room working. It did not exist before. This tonality came from them, witnessing us creating something while we influenced their melodic movement and vice-versa.
“It was like a stew, just brilliant songwriting, composition, really. And the arrangements of ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’ and ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen’ were beautiful, so smart and with so much heart. We were spoiled, as we had them with us during the entire rehearsal process, and that’s quite unique. I love that Paula put ‘Bei Mir’ in Yiddish. We get to hear a joyful song from that culture.
“Our choreographer, David Dorfman, was wonderful, another bright soul, generous person, and also extremely collaborative. He’d throw something at you, and maybe you’d make a mistake, but he’d say, ‘No, do that! I like it!’ He was also so open to Rebecca’s ideas. There was a lot of playfulness, let’s try this and see what happens, joyous, eclectic yet really grounded and athletic. And non-dance: I don’t think it’s intimidating or inaccessible to anyone who’s not a dancer. You can do it too, come up on stage and do it with us. He’s a good guy.”
The show’s opening night, with a party after at Bryant Park was indeed festive, for so many reasons, attended by the hippest New York crowd imaginable.
“It was my first opening night, on Broadway and it was pretty great, with such a sense of joy and accomplishment, sharing it with the cast and creative team. To have us all be there was really thrilling, and the audience was fantastic, such great energy, you feed off on that.”
A sociopolitical, non-linear show like this is a definite challenge for 2017 Broadway audiences, and Lenk observed, “The audiences really change. Our Sunday matinees are usually our best audiences, which isn’t usually the case. The older audiences respond in a quieter way. The younger ones come in and are so vocal and get things so quickly. I think they’re more accustomed to reading things and it being non-linear, maybe something to do with their phones, I don’t know. But the task of getting information from a screen isn’t foreign to the younger generation. It’s been a learning curve for all of us, just because they’re quiet doesn’t mean they hate it; they’re listening and taking it in. Box office-wise, we’re picking up. I hope the word is getting out and the Tonys are coming up so people are going, ‘I have to see that.’”
The subject changed to her other triumph this season, “The Band’s Visit,” which was undoubtedly the best new musical.
“That was another last-minute audition. I went in and was sure they were gonna say, ‘Get out of here.’ But there was something in the room with [director] David Cromer and [composer] David Yazbek, like we were already working together in the room. Similar to Rebecca and Paula, but a very different style of working, and I felt at home right away. And Tony Shalhoub was just a dream of a co-worker, generous and funny with so much heart. I’m looking forward to doing that again.”
As far as its Broadway transfer is concerned, Lenk said, “They haven’t announced it officially but it’s looking good.”
When I remarked how utterly convincing she was as a desperately bored, small-town Egyptian woman, from your first sight of her, in a louche stance, exuding the most world-weary savoir-faire imaginable, worthy of Anouk Aimée, she said, “You sort of steal from all sorts of places. The cast had a lot of — not enough — Middle Eastern actors or people who had relatives from Israel, so there was a lot of sharing details, like ‘this is how that would happen.’ And I also watched a ton of Israeli movies just to see what it’s it like to stand there. I’ve never been to the Middle East. The independent movie scene is really great there. I tried to get a sense of the people — they’re passionate but not sentimental at all. I’m drawn to that culture.”
A highlight of the show was her song “Omar Sharif,” not just for her voice but for these utterly gorgeous wafting arm movements, which were the essence of seductiveness. I asked Lenk about this and she said, “That’s such a good song! Our choreographer was Lee Sher, an Israeli who has her own dance company. She came up with a lot of that stuff, but again, it was collaborative and it’s hard to say which thing came from where.
“David Yazbek was very sparing with his comments to me, but when he made a comment you’d know exactly what he meant, very clear. He floated more on the periphery, I would say. That one was different from ‘Indecent’ because it’s a musical with songs written for it, so there wasn’t as much room to shift things around. He did change the key for me, which was nice. He’s also really funny so there was all this running comedic commentary going on during rehearsal.”
The show was also a an absolute visual highlight of the season, in terms of its evanescent design and lighting: “The set was beautiful — when we came in that first day of tech, we were like ‘Ohhh.’ I love how simple and straightforward the set and the direction were, yet very detailed.
Lenk, whose background is Prussian, grew up in Iowa, “for a little bit, and then Chicago. I started dance when I was three and was always singing and writing songs. I started the viola when I was six, and my parents were very supportive about my wanting to play and do things and great about enforcing discipline. You could not not practice. I hated them at the time for it but am now so grateful they taught me how to have discipline. It’s one thing to want to do something but you have to keep doing it to get better, and that’s hard to wrap your head around when you’re a kid.
“I went to Northwestern and my viola teacher was a professor there, so I planned on becoming a classical musician. I thought I could do that and dance and heater and singing, whatever, it’s fine. I had to narrow my focus down halfway through so I moved to music theater minor with a major in general music.
“I did stop playing the viola for a while. I was in a rock band in Chicago and then LA, where I kept up with viola in my own way. I write my own music so it never really went away. I just stopped learning the repertoire and practicing six hours a day. It never seemed enough because I could have easily practiced for seven more.”
Lenk came to New York officially five years ago, to be the replacement Arachne in “Spider-Man.”
“I stuck my toe in New York in 2010 to be the understudy for the Kate Whoriskey production of ‘The Miracle Worker.’ I thought that was when I was doing the big move from LA. I gave up my apartment and was going to Noo Yawk. But the play closed a lot earlier than we thought. I went back to LA with my tail between my legs — ‘I hate New York! I’m never going back!’
“And then ‘Spider-Man’ came through with auditions, and that was another audition where I thought I was horrible. ‘They hate me!’ I was crying in the parking lot.”
But she landed the gig.
“Then I decided — when you have a job and can afford to eat, you’re like ‘Yay! I can live here now.’ New York this time felt like home right away, and so I was in the show just under a year. And then ‘Once’ was casting for a replacement, conveniently looking for someone that played violin and could do a Czech accent. That was another coincidental lineup of I’m here and I can kind of do that. So one went right into another.”
I was interested in hearing about Lenk’s own music.
“It’s been compared to Kate Bush, Tori Amos, and Björk. I’m a huge Prince fan, so a lot of it is influenced by his old school stuff. My main instrument is the viola — a lot of string arrangements. I also like a rhythmic loop. I do this crazy other musical persona, a whole evening where I start by wearing a Marie Antoinette wig and crazy makeup and then all those things fall away.
“I’ve done it around the city and have a gig coming up August 14 at Sounds of the City.”
Also coming up for Lenk is the prestigious Dorothy Loudon Award for Excellence in the Theatre, which will be given to her as part of the Theatre World Awards on June 5.
“I was just blown away by this, had no idea. Very high class — they hand-delivered this envelope to the theater and inside was the letter that said I had won it. So classy and old school. I’m just like, ‘Why? What?’ Just baffling, and with all those other people who are so amazing to me!”
Romantically, Lenk has “a long-distance thing right now, which maybe is okay because I’m so busy. It makes me think of all those sad stories like ‘All About Eve.’ She’s drunk and alone, but she’s on Broadway. There’s an understanding between us, however, because this person is in show business, too, very supportive. I guess because in order to do it, you have to love it so much that it’s almost like a child you would do anything for. It kind of gets in the way of my personal life!”