It wasn’t the singing, dancing or acting that concerned Ariel Reich as she prepared to audition for “The Band’s Visit.”
It was the roller skating.
Reich plays Anna in the U.S. tour of the Tony Award-winning musical set in Israel, which opens in Pittsburgh next week. A quick search online for an open cast call describes Anna as “Julia’s cousin, sexy and extroverted. Roller skating skills a plus.”
“This is a major fear-conquering moment for me in my life,” Reich told the Chronicle. “I have spent my whole life being afraid of wheels, and I’ve always preferred feeling my feet on my ground. Anyone who knows me from childhood, or any part of my life, knows this about me.”
The actress, though, was determined to conquer her worries and went to a roller rink near her home in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. She taught herself how to skate — and conquered her fear of falling.
“I surprised myself and skated for about an hour,” she said. “I felt pretty comfortable and was enjoying it and then I plopped right on my booty, right at the end. I had a massive bruise for a couple of weeks. But it’s something I’ve celebrated. I’m doing something that scares me.”
Reich grew up in a Jewish household in St. Petersburg, Florida. She attended Jewish day school and Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia, and participated in the Conservative youth group USY. She then studied classical acting at the University of Florida, where she earned a bachelor’s in fine arts. While in college, she also studied health, and as a result, she’s done a lot of work at the intersection of the arts and health.
Before auditioning for “The Band’s Visit,” Reich was a teaching artist on the faculty of the Mark Morris Dance Group, helping with its internationally recognized dance program for those with Parkinson’s disease. She remains connected to that program even while on tour, she said, because classes are still held virtually due to the pandemic.
It was because of COVID-19 that “The Band’s Visit” had to cancel its Pittsburgh performances in 2020 halfway through its run. The musical will open the 2021-2022 PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh season at the Benedum Center on Oct. 28 and run through Oct. 31.
Reich, who wasn’t with the production when it was forced to end its run in 2020, said there is a special significance to the Pittsburgh dates.
“I think it’s going to be a very layered experience for those members of our company who are returning from pre-COVID times, and those of us who are new are going to share in that experience,” she said. “It won’t hit us the same way because we weren’t there when the shutdown happened, but I think Pittsburgh will be a very special experience.”
The idea of performing before a live audience after the isolation of a pandemic has caused a bit of anxiety, Reich admitted, but she has found strength in the cast, who has bonded into a family.
On the other hand, Reich said, “When we get to the curtain call, it is overwhelming to stand there and look out and see 3,000 people, not only in terms of the people looking at you but also in terms of COVID. We are not out of the pandemic, so it is still an uncomfortable and precarious time.”
Reich said she’s grateful that both masks and proof of vaccination are required, both for the audiences and those working on the show. The actress noted that the virus even affected the way she auditioned for “The Band’s Visit.”
She first submitted a video audition in mid-June and then had a Zoom session with the creative team, including the director, music supervisor and casting director. She then had a few in-person auditions and two final callbacks, including one focused on the previously dreaded roller skating — a skill with which she was now comfortable.
“A couple of days later I got the call that I got the job,” she said.
The musical, adapted from a 2007 Israeli film, is about a group of Egyptian musicians scheduled to perform in an Arab cultural center in Petah Tikvah, Israel. Instead, they are mistakenly sent to the tiny Jewish town of Bet Hatikva.
Reich said she believes the film struck a chord with a global audience because it embodies themes of hope and connection.
“At the bare bones of the story,” she said, “you see human beings who have basic needs and connect around those needs and the power of music. I think that hope is universal, and that people can not only relate to it, but really need now. I can’t think of a better story to share with people as we navigate these times. It’s a deep honor to offer this message of hope.”
Reich said she thinks audiences can take that message of hope and translate it to the real world.
“This is the first time for many people to return to theater,” she said. “I think, coming out of the pandemic, it’s something that helps with that fear. We’re a spark of hope, and I think that is great.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.