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After 25 years in the biz, Andrew Polk makes his Main Stem debut in The Band's Visit
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
Last season David Yazbek and Itamar Moses's chamber musical The Band's Visit was a breakout hit at Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company. Now the production has transferred to Broadway and is being touted as an "anti-musical" due to its low-key vibe, Middle Eastern-flavored score, and emphasis on relatable emotions over razzle-dazzle entertainment. So it's fitting that a few members of its intimate ensemble are better known for their acting chops than their singing and dancing skills.
Andrew Polk is one of those performers. Although the fiftysomething character actor has been working regularly on screen (House of Cards) and stage (he's a New Group regular) since the early '90s, The Band's Visit is only his third musical and marks his Broadway debut. Yet he says many aspects of his life have come "full circle" by working on this show at the Atlantic and now at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Based on the film of the same name about an Egyptian band that accidentally ends up stranded overnight in a tiny Israeli town in 1996, The Band's Visit chronicles the heartwarming ways these strangers bond with the locals. Polk plays Avrum, an Israeli widower and sometime violinist who finds common ground with the Egyptian musicians. "My mother is a concert pianist -- she's a master teacher at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music," Polk says. "I studied cello for ten years and was also the president of our choir in high school, so music was a big part of my upbringing, though I never pursued it professionally." In addition, Polk's wife is from Tel Aviv so "this musical touches on the Israeli side of my family," he says. "It really does feel like a lot of elements in my life coming together."
The Band's Visit also reunites the actor with two artists he has longstanding relationships with: playwright and performer John Cariani, who plays Avrum's unemployed son-in-law Itzik, and book writer Moses. Polk produced multiple shows by both while serving as the artistic director of the Cape Cod Theatre Project in Falmouth, MA from 1995 to 2011. "It's funny, I hired John to work on his then fledging play Almost, Maine," Polk recalls. "At that point he was just an actor and trying out writing. We developed the show at my theatre, and it's now one of the most produced plays in America in high schools and colleges! And I worked on two shows of Itamar's on the Cape. That's how we got to know each other."
When Moses originally invited Polk to participate in a reading of The Band's Visit, the actor didn't even realize it was a musical. "We didn't sing," he remembers. "We read the script and when the time came for a song, David would hit the button on his boom box and play a demo. As I was leaving, they asked, 'Do you sing?' and I said, 'Yeah, sure.' I had a series of auditions after that. I even played the cello for David -- I did a nice little Vivaldi thing. What I didn't realize is that David, among the many other things he does brilliantly, is also an accomplished cellist! I asked if he wanted me to play anything else and he said, 'Ah, no.'"
Though Polk doesn't get to show off his instrumental skills as Avrum, he does lead the wonderful number "The Beat of Your Heart," in which he sings about falling for his late wife thanks to music: "Love starts when the tune is sweet, and you lift your feet to the beat of your heart." As Avrum croons and dances around the dinner table at his adult daughter's house, he lifts the spirits of everyone in the vicinity, and bonds with the two Egyptian musicians who are spending the night.
"Avrum starts off wary and suspicious of them," Polk says. "The loosening up happens over the connection to music. I learn one of the guys wrote a concerto, and that's my entrée to learn more about them. And then we all start singing 'Summertime!' We connect for the first time over Gershwin, which I love. Music is where these people find their common language."
That theme runs throughout the show as the denizens of Bet Hatikva and the members of the Egyptian Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band realize they have more to talk about than they at first realized -- music, movies, love, sex, loneliness, disappointment, compromise, pain, in short, life. And although politics are never discussed, there's still an undercurrent of tension: During a scene in a roller rink, an armed Israeli soldier makes his suspicion of these Egyptian outsiders clear.
Yet The Band's Visit, like Oslo, shows that a personal connection can trump ideological differences. "There's a lot of my wife's family in this portrayal, along with my understanding of the culture," Polk says. "The toughness, how different Israelis are culturally from us -- it's shocking how direct they are, and kind of refreshing. Before I went to Israel, I thought it was a bunch of people in the desert with guns. I mean there is that but it's also not that. It's this very complicated, beautiful country."
Top image: Andrew Polk's head shot.
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