Supper and Sondheim

On any given night in Minnesota, the charter bus in front of you on the highway may well be barreling toward the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. The Chan, as the complex of four theaters is known, is the largest dinner theater in the nation, selling some 250,000 tickets annually—as many as are sold for touring Broadway shows at the Orpheum, State, and Pantages theaters combined. The Chan also qualifies as the state’s largest restaurant, as it serves more than a thousand meals on a busy night. Yet it’s not big enough. By 2009, the Chan will expand to capitalize on high weekend demand, either by moving (possibly to the Mall of America) or by rebuilding in Chanhassen. Long after most dinner theaters went the way of the leisure suit, the Chan is challenging the Guthrie as Minnesota’s most popular theatrical destination.

How in the name of jumbo shrimp cocktail is this possible? Is it the Chan’s top-notch acting troupe, which once included Loni Anderson, Oscar nominee Amy Adams (Junebug), and Pat Proft (co-writer of the Naked Gun and Police Academy movies)? Is it the surefire material, such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Sound of Music? Is it the hollandaise-slathered Chicken Chanhassen? What magic happens between the moment passengers get off the bus exhausted from the ride and when they reboard some five hours later, whistling “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”?

According to Michael Brindisi, the Chan’s artistic director since 1987, dinner theater developed in the 1950s, fueled by the same one-stop shopping mentality that drove the development of malls. You paid one price and got dinner and a show—plus free parking. The Chan came along in 1968, opening, ironically enough, with How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The playhouse was the pet project of longtime theater fans Herb and Carol Bloomberg. Herb was a custom-home builder who had created billionaire Curt Carlson’s Wisconsin retreat and designed the Old Log Theater in Excelsior. At 54, he launched his family’s own theatrical adventure in Chanhassen, a city that was then almost as rural as the setting for Oklahoma! The Bloombergs built their venue on a cornfield near their home; a feed mill stood across the street. They wanted the theater, with its ranch-style construction, to seem escapist, and they succeeded. Even today, flanked by a commercial strip that includes the Hair for Guys & Dolls salon, the Chan feels a world or two removed from downtown Minneapolis—and from a typical Twin Cities theatergoing experience.

The Bloombergs saw the playhouse as an extension of their living room. In the carpeted lobby, you’ll find a grand piano, burgundy leather chairs, a large stone fireplace, and the kind of electric organ you stood around to sing Christmas songs in the ’70s. You’ll also find the Chan’s tuxedoed greeters, who announce patrons’ birthdays and anniversaries from the stage. Patrons feel like houseguests, and some practically are.

Judy and Tim Cronen of Lakeville have been going to the Chan nearly since it opened, even scheduling their vacations around the performance schedule. They say they appreciate the clean humor of the shows, and the staff, Judy gushes, “feel like family.” Which, in a way, they are. Brindisi met his wife at the theater when they both acted in Annie Get Your Gun; now their daughter performs in Michael’s shows. Most famously, the leads in the Chan’s production of I Do! I Do! married each other and stayed with the show for its entire record-setting 22-year run.

The Chan was close-knit from the beginning. Gary Gisselman, an in-demand director who has helmed A Christmas Carol for the Guthrie Theater the past few seasons, was just 27 when he became the Chan’s first artistic director; he calls the Bloombergs “second parents.” Together, they hatched the Chan’s formula for success, a set of principles that helped the venue become, as one critic called it, the “Cadillac of dinner theaters.”

At the time of the Chan’s development, there was only one venue like it in town, the Friars Dinner Theater in Minneapolis. The Chan outlasted the Friars—and scores of dinner theaters around the country—by trying not to act like a dinner theater. “When you say you work for dinner theater, people look for gravy spots on your tie,” says Gisselman. “Most people’s experience of dinner theater was not very good.”

Chan rule number 1: No stars. Many dinner theaters would cast washed-up television and movie actors to sell a show. “You sold the star and not the theater,” says Gisselman. “We thought the theater should be the event.”

Chan rule number 2: No freakin’ buffet. “You go to other dinner theaters and there’s a buffet with 74 kinds of macaroni salad and Big Bob the carver in a big hat putting a piece of prime rib on your plate,” cracks Gisselman. The Chan has always had table service.

Chan rule number 3: Cut the cheesiness. Many dinner theaters failed, Brindisi believes, because ticket prices rose but production values didn’t. When some theaters resorted to camp, the Chan stuck with class—an attribute that no doubt factored in the New York–based Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization’s recent decision to partner with the Chan on a 2007 world-premiere theatrical version of the classic 1948 MGM film Easter Parade. Brindisi doesn’t dumb down the shows, either. His unedited My Fair Lady, for instance, ran three and a half hours—hardly the fluffy dessert most dinner theaters dish up.

“People constantly turn up their noses at dinner theaters,” says Brindisi. “And then the same people come out [to the Chan] and see a show and get turned around.”

You can gauge the average age of a restaurant’s customer base by how many alcoholic ice-cream drinks are on the menu. At the Chan, there are nine, from a Pink Squirrel to a Golden Cadillac. Most theaters have a gray-haired audience; the Chan is one of the few that acknowledges it. Which isn’t to say that all Chan patrons remember when Fiddler on the Roof debuted. On a recent evening, for instance, the small dining room beside the Chan’s Fireside Theatre is humming with high-heeled high-school girls and their moms.

The waitress is explaining hollandaise sauce to a couple of young women and their dates. “It’s what’s on eggs Benedict,” she says. “It’s yellow.” Sold—four more plates of saucy Chicken Chanhassen. Meanwhile, busloads of high-school and middle-school students arrive from northern Minnesota, North Dakota, and Winnipeg. The boys buy roses for their girlfriends. The house photographer snakes around tables asking if parties want their pictures taken. Cameras flash like fireworks. “It’s a magical little place,” Brindisi says of the Chan, and indeed, for these kids, the evening is enchanted even before the music begins.

For many people, musicals are an easy entrée, no pun intended, into the art of theater. The Guthrie Theater, for instance, is mounting more musical productions than ever before as it seeks to broaden its audience. Musicals now make up the majority of productions on Broadway, with producers tossing all manner of entertainment into the musical grinder, adding some special effects, and churning out hits, from last year’s Mary Poppins: The Musical to this year’s The Lord of the Rings.

Musicals enact a kind of alchemy, Brindisi believes, transforming paper-thin plots into moving experiences. “Just at the point where you think the spoken word is at the height of emotion,” he says, “you suddenly break into song, and the emotion grows.” And just when you think the music has peaked, he adds, the actors dance, elevating the dynamic once again. The formula can move theatergoers to tears—or to make major life changes, as in the case of a patron who wrote Brindisi to say that a musical he saw at the Chan inspired him to reunite with his ex-wife.

At its best, says Gisselman, the musical genre can be more exciting than so-called “straight” plays. Though, he adds, “At its worst, it can be deadly.” The Chan has undoubtedly made arguments for both cases over the years, sometimes simultaneously, as it generally runs shows in three theaters on the same night. Most recently, West Side Story played on the main stage while a spoof, The Musical of Musicals: The Musical, was performed in the Playhouse, and MID-LIFE! The Crisis Musical (not to be confused with Menopause: The Musical) ran in the Fireside Theatre.

MID-LIFE’s cast includes Tod Petersen, the local actor beloved for his annual holiday show, A Christmas Carole Petersen. The Chan has always attracted top actors, for its quality productions as well as the steady work it offers. Many stage actors endure long periods of waiting tables between gigs, but shows at the Chan run for months, if not years; at one point, the theater was employing 1 percent of all the Equity (professional) actors in the country, according to Gisselman. “This place has kept me alive for 15, 16 years,” says frequent Chan actor David Anthony Brinkley. Of course, some of the material might take a few of those years back.

MID-LIFE features skits and songs about menopause, dating in your forties, and…prostate exams. “I don’t mind the thinning hair or the ever-growing gut,” goes one cheeky tune, “but I don’t like it very much when he sticks his finger way up in my butt.” The audience howls. When a song called “Turning Fifty” begins, a woman in the audience wearing a tiara stands up and claps. After the show, patrons peruse the MID-LIFE merchandise display, which includes buttons that say “Ask me about my mid-life crisis.”

Brindisi believes there’s a point to every show he stages, from Fiddler on the Roof, with its meditations on religion and race, to MID-LIFE, with its emphasis on uterus jokes. “Even the silliest, fluffiest piece of entertainment has a purpose and a meaning, even if it’s just to get us to laugh,” he says. Brinkley puts it this way: “If there are any embers in there, [Brindisi will] fan them into flames. There’s nobody in town better at it than him.”

Singin’ in the Rain runs through October 9 on Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ main stage. Call 952-934-1525 for reservations.

Tim Gihring is senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.