Here's the thing about the theatrical Brindisi family. If you did not believe they were so sincere, so goodhearted, so honestly in love with each other, so charming, they would drive you crazy.
Director Michael thinks his wife, Michelle, and daughter, Cat, are stage stars — bona fide leading ladies. Michelle thinks husband Michael is one of the best directors she's ever worked with. Cat thinks her parents are the greatest, and she loves being back home at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, working with them in "Hello, Dolly!," which opens in previews Friday.
The only whiff of controversy — and it didn't hang in the air long during a recent lunch with the three — was whether Cat ever would return to "Dad's theater." She has spent the past several years making it on her own, proving to everyone that she doesn't need home cooking to make her mark in theater.
"I had this wall up," Cat said. "It's a small community, and stuff gets said, but I just had to learn to let it go. An actor friend said to me, 'Look, you have to get over that — you get work on your own.' "
Crisis averted, and Cat has embraced that she's going to play Irene Molloy with her mother as Dolly Levi and her dad as director.
Cat Brindisi intentionally turned down work at Chanhassen in the past few years, with the exception of a chorus role in "Xanadu." She wanted to prove herself, and she did, with major roles in "Spring Awakening," "Spelling Bee" and "Aida" for Theater Latté Da. She has been cast at Mixed Blood and Children's Theatre Company and just finished "My Fair Lady" as a chorus member and Eliza Doolittle's understudy.
A perfect Dolly
Michelle Barber (as she's known professionally) also has been working away from the family ranch for significant stretches of late. She took on the herculean role of Martha in the Jungle's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," and then "Hamlet" with director Bain Boehlke. Barber acted in "Caroline, or Change," "Other Desert Cities" and "Roman Holiday" at the Guthrie. She and her daughter performed in "Spring Awakening" for Theater Latté Da.
"This is close to home," Barber said of Chanhassen. "I just like working with Cat and Michael."
Chanhassen has twice produced "Hello, Dolly!" which bears the names of two American theater legends, Jerry Herman and Thornton Wilder. (Michael Stewart wrote the book, but it's based on Wilder's "The Matchmaker." Barber played Irene in 1992 — costumer Rich Hamson is sewing a piece of Barber's old gown into Cat's dress for this production — with Susan Long as Dolly. Chan veteran Keith Rice plays Horace Vandergelder, Dolly's romantic interest, and the cast includes Tyler Michaels (fresh from "My Fair Lady" at the Guthrie), Jessica Fredrickson and Kersten Rodau, who just finished a turn as Ursula, the sea witch in "The Little Mermaid."
"Every time people say, 'You'd be a great Dolly,' I ask why," said Barber. "Not a lot of people know much about her. She's warm, a busybody. I bring this stuff up to Michael and ask him, 'Who is Dolly Levi, really?' "
Michael Brindisi puts it simply: She's funny, this is a classic musical (10 Tonys and a six-year first run on Broadway) and you, Michelle, "are right for this role — you're someone who lights up the stage."
And of course Cat is, too. She's tall, exuberant, smiles like a lighthouse, sings like a lark, moves well and has great comic timing. Those are observations not from her doting father, but from a critic.
Home away from home
Michael Brindisi has been artistic director at Chanhassen since 1987, when he and Barber moved up from the Minnesota Festival Theatre in Albert Lea. Cat Brindisi was born in Chanhassen, got on stage in "State Fair," and never knew a different way of growing up. Her parents worked lots of nights and weekends. That was normal, and Cat Brindisi considered her relationships with Mom and Dad "a cool life we lead."
Asked whether there was a lot of drama around the house (aren't theater couples supposed to be tempestuous?) Cat recalled that "our family always sings at Christmas." Wow. Clear the front page.
There has always been a fairy-tale quality to the Brindisis' home life — which is centered both at the theater and their split-level rambler on a quiet Chanhassen street. Michael Brindisi loves to direct theater. He loves his wife and daughter. He loves putting all that together, which he gets to do every day.
"This isn't real," Michael Brindisi said, referring to the theater he has guided artistically since before his daughter was born. "It's a dream life."
If Cat Brindisi has an unfair advantage over any other musical performer her age, it is that her mother and father love the business and have instilled in her the same positive energy. She has dabbled in other professions (Pilates instructor, for example) but she never left herself any options when she went to college at the Univeristy of Minnesota Duluth. Theater was the deal — the whole deal.
At Chanhassen, she's family, but many actors who have worked there feel like family. The long runs of eight-performance weeks create a sense of community distinct from any other Twin Cities theater.
"This was more my home than home," Cat Brindisi said, referring to the countless days she spent at the theater growing up. "I see why my dad loves this."
And her mom.
It's just so sweet. Please, someone give me a pickle to suck on.