If you’re turning 50, you might as well do it in style. Throw a party. Have a classy jazz duo – Benny Weinbeck on piano, Gordy Johnson on bass – greet people as they come through your door. Serve prime rib and ice-cream drinks. Enjoy the fact that Gov. Mark Dayton has proclaimed this your day. Entertain a crowd of 560 with a spectacle of a musical, with famous songs and fabulous dancing, a strong cast and gorgeous costumes. Then continue with a birthday bash in the Club Theatre.
That’s what Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) did, and they did it impeccably well. Opening night of “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” was a night to remember, with nonstop hospitality in the house and fireworks on the stage.
But before getting into “Holiday Inn,” some background.
Founded by Herbert and Carolyn Bloomberg, built in a Carver County cornfield – and “still here against all odds,” said infomercial queen Nancy Nelson during the opening remarks – CDT opened on Oct. 11, 1968, with “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” Growing into a 90,000-square-foot complex with multiple stages, it has staged 237 homegrown productions and entertained more than 12.5 million people.
It’s one of a half-dozen professional dinner theaters still standing, with table service from the start, and the largest privately owned single-unit restaurant in Minnesota. It’s also the state’s largest employer of musical theater professionals. All productions are designed and created on site by Minnesota artists, designers, actors and musicians. Many actors who have trod Chanhassen’s boards have gone on to Broadway, TV and films: Amy Adams, Laura Osnes, TR Knight, Linda Kelsey, Loni Anderson, Pat Proft, Ron Perlman.
No longer in a cornfield – the city of Chanhassen, which just observed its own 50th anniversary, has grown up around it, and Paisley Park is down the road – CDT is someplace to check out if you haven’t yet been there. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience. And the current production, “Holiday Inn,” is a musical, muscular display of its strengths.
This is a regional premiere of the show that opened on Broadway in 2016. Inspired by the 1942 Oscar-winning film starring Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, it’s full of great songs including “White Christmas,” “Happy Holiday,” “Blue Skies,” “Easter Parade,” “Cheek to Cheek” and “Steppin’ Out with My Baby.” The large cast is led by Michael Gruber, Ann Michels, Tony Vierling, Jessica Fredrickson and Michelle Barber.
The story is thin – mainly a frame on which to hang all the singing, dancing, costumes and scenes. After years on Broadway, Jim (Gruber) has decided to leave the bright lights behind for a peaceful life in Connecticut. His stage partners Ted (Vierling) and Lila (Fredrickson) aren’t happy about that, especially Lila, who’s Jim’s fiancée for a minute, until Ted woos her away with promises of Hollywood stardom.
Jim soon finds Connecticut too sleepy for his tastes. He meets Linda (Ann Michels), a schoolteacher who happens to be a talented singer and dancer, and Louise (Barber), a mouthy farmhand. Together they turn the farmhouse (Linda’s former home) into an inn. It will only be open on holidays from Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July – including Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter – and it will stage performances featuring Jim’s Broadway friends.
Jim and Linda fall in love. Then Ted shows up, wooing Linda with promises of Hollywood stardom. Oh, and here comes Lila. Will Jim lose the girl again? What do you think?
The story barely matters. What counts are the nonstop singing and dancing, both splendid. The leads are backed by a large ensemble cast that fills the stage with twirling, tapping, and smiles. Gowns sparkle and whirl. And there really are fireworks. In “Let’s Say It With Firecrackers,” Vierling mimes throwing flash bangs onto the stage while dancing up a storm. What masterful timing all around: from Vierling, the band and whoever flips the switch to make the lights in the stage burst into brightness.
Michael Brindisi directs. He’s only the second artistic director in CDT’s long history, after Gary Gisselman; this is Brindisi’s 30th year with the theater. Choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson guided dozens of feet in many thousands of steps. Andy Kust leads the band; Nayna Ramey did the scenic design, which morphs seamlessly from New York to a country farmhouse with a barn that figures prominently toward the end, and a Hollywood set (an especially hilarious scene). Rich Hamson came up with the beautiful costumes. The show lasts two hours, plus there’s a 30-minute intermission, enough time for a coffin-sized slab of the Chanhassen’s chocolate cake.
Though “Holiday Inn” is perhaps best known for loosing “White Christmas” on the world, it’s not specifically a Christmas show. You can see it anytime from now through Feb. 23, 2019. There are eight shows every week. Former Star Tribune theater critic Graydon Royce plans to be in every one. A member of the ensemble cast, he plays a radio announcer, and he sings. He’s pretty good, too.
FMI and tickets ($76-91 dinner and show; special student and senior pricing); 952-934-1525. Show-only tickets are available 10 days before a performance date.
Now at the History Theatre: The Great Society. Robert Schenkkan has written two plays about LBJ: the Tony-winning “All the Way,” seen at the History Theatre this time last year, and a sequel, “The Great Society.” The original cast returns, with Pearce Bunting as LBJ, Shawn Hamilton as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Andrew Erskine Wheeler as Hubert H. Humphrey. Spanning the years 1965–68, the play schools us on our history and depicts LBJ’s fall from grace as his accomplishments – including historic legislation on health care, education and poverty – are overshadowed by Vietnam. FMI and tickets ($37-56; less for seniors, students and under 30s). Ends Oct. 28.
Tonight (Thursday, Oct. 18) through Saturday at the Cowles: Twin Cities Tap Festival. This annual event brings together local tap dancers of all ages with national artists for a weekend of classes, events and performances accompanied by live musicians. Performers include Dianne “Lady Di” Walker, Brenda Bufalino, Sam Weber, Kaleena Miller Dance and Kean Sense of Rhythm Youth Tap Ensemble. 7:30 p.m. all nights. FMI and tickets ($15-30).
Friday at Orchestra Hall: Jazz in the Target Atrium: Peter Bernstein. An intimate evening of solo guitar from the eloquent Bernstein, who has played with Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Cobb, Joshua Redman, Diana Krall and many more. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($32).
Saturday at Hamline: Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop 7th Annual Reading: “Beyond Bars: Voices of Incarceration.” Family members, friends, and MPWW instructors and mentors will read poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction by writers incarcerated in state correctional facilities. Released MPWW alumni will read their own work. In the Klas Center, Kay Fredericks Room. 7 p.m. Free. Here’s a campus map.
Saturday and Sunday at MacPhail’s Antonello Hall: Minnesota Bach Ensemble: “Rustic and Refined.” The Bach Ensemble will open its 7th season with an old favorite, rarely heard works and special guests. Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 2 will feature the SPCO’s Lynn Erickson as trumpet soloist. The program will also include music by Fasch, Biber, Conti and Czech Baroque composer Zelenka. Artistic Director Andrew Altenbach will conduct. With Minnesota Orchestra flutist Adam Kuenzel and soprano Linh Kauffman. 3 p.m. both days. FMI and tickets ($30/$10 students).
Monday at the Chanhassen: JazzMN Orchestra: “Sinatra & Basie: Live at the Sands.” Swinging, sophisticated multi-platinum recording artist Curtis Stigers will perform with Minnesota’s premier big band as it approaches its 20th anniversary under Artistic Director Doug Snapp. Note the new location: not the Hopkins High auditorium, but Chanhassen’s main stage. This is a dinner show. FMI and tickets ($30-50). Coming up: “Jingle Bell Jazz” on Dec. 17 and JazzMN’s 20th Anniversary Celebration concert on April 8.