She sits alone in a gathering space at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, but Michelle Barber could just as easily be sitting in her Chanhassen home. She looks quite comfortable— the room empty of play patrons or spillovers from Brindisi’s Pub—as the sound of the departing matinee crowd filters just outside the door. Fresh from performing as Dolly Levi in the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres’ (CDT) production of Hello, Dolly!, Barber appears content. She is, after all, at home.
Barber has appeared in nearly 60 CDT productions, the first being her turn at age 19 in Guys and Dolls. Other stage work has taken her to the Guthrie Theater, Jungle Theater and Theater Latté Da and beyond, but it’s been at the Chanhassen theater that Barber has found her artistic and familial home.
Her husband, actor and respected director Michael Brindisi, has directed more than 100 CDT productions and is the artistic director and president of CDT. Their daughter, actress Cat Brindisi, 25, is a longtime CDT and Twin Cities actress, and a co-creator of 7th House Theater. Alongside her mother, she performed as Irene Molloy in Hello, Dolly! when the show opened. Cat has also worked at the Children’s Theatre Company, Theater Latté Da, and the Guthrie, Illusion and Mixed Blood theaters.
As Barber talks, one can’t help but watch her speak as much as listen to her. Quick eyes play to accompany her words. Hands orchestrate memories to come to life. A foot taps in the air, keeping double time to her thoughts and the conversation, which runs with an unexpected tempo.
“I am my mother’s daughter,” says Barber, explaining her penchant to “keep moving.”
Michelle's paternal grandmother Ermal Barber.
That may be very true. Her mother, Rosita Barber, is a quick-witted, piano-playing, energetic woman, clearly the star of any gathering. She’s the one you want to sit next to because her stories and uncontainable laugh would make any boring dinner party worth getting dressed up for. All that at 90 years old.
That’s only part of the familial story for the Chanhassen actress. Cue the life of the late Ermal Barber, Michelle’s paternal grandmother. As a piano player for silent movies in Chicago, Ermal had a penchant of her own—Ragtime.
“Her left hand was enviable,” Michelle remembers of Ermal’s ability to play the musical genre that gives rhythmic power to the oft-second fiddled left hand. “She played like it was nothing.”
There are other musical influences in the generational pipeline. Grandfather Charlie Barber was a professional trombone player; grandfather Alton Ellingson dabbled with the violin and fiddle; her father, Bill Barber, was an accomplished Twin Cities’ jazz pianist; and mother Rosita performed on northern Minnesota’s KTRF, where she played piano and read poetry for a show sponsored by Bridgeman’s Ice Cream. “It was so corny, but Bridgeman’s liked it,” Rosita says, laughing.
After a brief stint as a clerk/typist in President Harry S. Truman’s White House, Rosita returned to Minnesota and resumed preforming. She crossed paths with her future husband, Bill, while subbing for a singer on a WCCO radio program. Once married, the couple carried forth their love of music and encouraged their four children to begin music lessons by the time they were 6 years old. “We grew up in music,” Michelle says. “We never thought twice about music. It was always around us.”
So it’s no surprise her siblings also grew up to become performers. Billy Barber composed music for daytime dramas and films, and has worked with the Oak Ridge Boys and Ray Charles. Matt Barber performs as a percussionist with CDT and the Minnesota Opera, and Beth Barber-Doty is a classically trained pianist and teaches at Schmitt Music.
Michelle’s father worked for a time in marketing for Procter & Gamble, Campbell Mithun and Land O’Lakes and was co-founder of Pride, Barber and Pride advertising. Cocktail parties at the Barber house often featured singing performances from a young Michelle. If she was like many other children, there probably was some eavesdropping going on during those parties on Minneapolis’ Colfax Avenue. What child can resist a little unfiltered, cocktail-tinged conversation when the adults are ensconced in the living room? Maybe Michelle caught a little advertising bug during those parties.
Many Minnesotans will remember the 1970s commercial jingle, “Northwest Orient (wait for it) Airlines.” That was Michelle singing. For a time, she made a steady living as an advertising jingle performer; clients also included Yoplait Yogurt, Minnesota Federal, McDonald’s and the Minnesota Twins: “We’re gonna win Twins, we’re gonna score…”
Michelle with husband Michael Brindisi.
Eventually, Michelle settled in stage theater, primarily in the Twin Cities. Even after moving to New York City to give theater a go in the larger market, Michelle felt the Twin Cities theater scene was a better fit. It was here that she met her husband, actor and director Michael Brindisi. The couple continued working in theater, and it’s only natural that their daughter, Cat, hit the stage even before she landed in her parents’ arms.
“She was surrounded by it,” Michelle says, since Cat shared the stage with her pregnant mother in the CDT production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel. As Princess Puffer, a madam who runs an opium den, Michelle’s costume team was tasked with accommodating her ever-expanding pregnant body. Subsequent casts and crews played an important part in Cat’s life, as she literally grew up in the Chanhassen theater. “(CDT) was kind of more my home than my actual home,” Cat says. “When I step into that space, memories flood back.”
Some of those memories include friendships forged with other young performers, and turns in approximately 15 CDT productions, including State Fair, her first show, at 7 years old. Her thoughts also turn to annual Thanksgivings when family, friends and “gypsies of theater” joined the Barber Brindisi family for no rules, girls versus boys, never-ending romps of charades. Childhood New Year’s Eves were spent learning songs like L-O-V-E, Route 66 and Day In, Day Out at the knee of her grandpa Barber. “That is still today my root,” Cat says. “I can feel it in the bottom of my heart.”
Living a life so ingrained in theater must call for the occasional break. Michelle finds emotional respite through cooking, which she first discovered as an 8-year-old growing up in the Hopkins-Minneapolis area. Reading about cream puffs, Barber became enthralled. “I thought it was the coolest thing,” she says.
Her father, who worked at the time for Land O’Lakes, provided a plethora of dairy products, especially butter and cream, for young Michelle to mix and whip into decadent choux a la crème.
Today, Michelle’s most requested menu item is roasted chicken with peanut-noodle sauce.
When it comes to food, tasting good is one thing, but looking good—that brings it to an entirely different level. With artistic blood flowing through Michelle’s storied lineage, certainly her food hits the high notes of presentation. Right? “No, my dishes don’t look very good,” she admits.
Like most performers, Michelle enjoys a few verbal applauses for her efforts or the occasional critique. Some meals that closed after “opening night” include a tuna steak dinner for eight and an infamous batch of potato salad starring the unlikely duo of Yukon Gold potatoes and….beets. It didn’t go over well. Close the curtain.
After rehearsing and performing with and in front of a multitude of people, there are times when Michelle needs to step away into the solitude of not only her kitchen, but also open spaces, where she can walk or run without the confines of stage blocking to orchestrate her every move. “It’s not artistic for me,” Michelle explains of her approach to cooking. “I cut it the way I want to cut it. I chop it the way I want.”
For years, Michelle exercised her competitive spirit by running races from 5Ks to a marathon and participating in triathlons. “Cooking and running are just by myself,” she says. “Respite.”
Maybe hitting the stage for so many years has taken a physical toll. Michelle had a hip replacement a year ago, and running might have to rest at the sidelines. “I started swimming yesterday,” she says. “We’ll see how that goes.”
But Michelle does share her mother’s positive attitude, and continues to glean pearls of wisdom from others, including her neighbor, whom she drives weekly to physical therapy. He recently told her, “You have to live your life as if…” As if you’re going to be a successful stage actress. As if you’re going to be a great cook. As if you’re going to be….
Don’t miss Michelle Barber as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly!, which runs through February 21 at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. Visit chanhassentheatres.com for show times and ticket information.