Irving Berlin's Easter Parade
Remarkably, writer Tom Briggs and director Michael Brindisi take this wafer-thin plot, flesh it out and make it something memorable in Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's world premiere musical, which opened Friday. That change gives the show an unexpected but welcome sense of real weight, and one that makes the evening of glorious Berlin music all the more enjoyable. Add in strong performances, a brilliant set and gorgeous costumes and you have an unqualified success.
Set in 1910 and 1911, Easter Parade follows callow, career-obsessed dancer Don Hewes. His longtime dance partner, Nadine Hale, has just left the act. So on a bet, Hewes takes in a low-talent dancer, Hannah Brown, to be his partner. The story then turns in an unexpected way, as Hannah shows that she's far more skilled as a singer and convinces Hewes to change the act. From there, they low-level competition with the now solo Nadine, as both try to reach the top. To make things a bit more complex, their press agent, Johnny Moore, is smitten with Hannah, but is unsure of how to express that love.
In this simple framework, there are plenty of nuances within the characters. Hewes may be the leading man, but he is far from a likeable character, as he badgers all of those around him and is unable to see anything except his career. Nadine, who easily could be a shrewish, bitter former partner, instead is a character taking her first steps after years of being forced to play second fiddle to Hewes.
It helps to have top talent in the roles. Chanhassen brought in Michael Gruber from New York to play Don Hewes, and the Broadway veteran shows off his leading man skills. His dancing and singing are both easy and graceful, while his character is complex, shifting between charming and caddish in the same scene. Michelle Barber does the same with Nadine, showing both her natural jealousy of Don and Hannah's success, but also her still strong feelings for her longtime partner and her conflicted desires about him. While the characters of Hannah and Johnny Moore aren't nearly as detailed, they are still well rounded, and Ann Michels and Keith Rice add their considerable talents and charms to the show.
Oh, and there's the music. Brindisi has selected a strong collection of Berlin's music, using songs from the film and other pieces from the writer's considerable songbook. Since the story involves stage performers, there are plenty of opportunities for epic and varied set pieces, including a clever reading of "When the Midnight Choo-choo Leaves for Alabam'" (for Don and Hannah) and "Shaking the Blues Away" (for Nadine), all of which is well choreographed by Tamara Kangas.
Credit also needs to be given to set designer Nayna Ramey for bringing the various set pieces to life, and costume designer Sandra Nei Schulte for both the detailed period clothes and the complex pieces they wear for the stage numbers.
Irving Berlin's Easter Parade could have simply been a run through of the great songwriter's music, and that probably would have been entertaining. What Chanhassen Dinner Theatres has done has taken the material to a fresh and interesting place. Not only will you be humming the songs as you leave the theater, but the characters – and the show's message – will stay with you long after the final curtain call.
Irving Berlin's Easter Parade runs through June 9 at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. For reservations or information, call 952-934-1525 or 800-362-3515; or visit www.chanhassendt.com.