Chanhassen Dinner Theatres maven Michelle Barber sang and danced her way through opening night on Friday in the new Main Stage production of “Mamma Mia!”
Barber plays the role of Tanya, one of the “Dynamos,” a member of Donna Sheridan’s trio, Donna and the Dynamos. The show runs through September.
It’s not surprising Barber grew up to be an actress. Her childhood home was orchestrated for music.
In the living room sat a piano. Walk into the dining room and you’d find percussive instruments. A trumpet and clarinet were downstairs and the main bedroom housed a harmonica, ukulele and guitar.
The instruments were fixtures of household bustle when Barber and her siblings returned home from school, making quick claims on who would practice what first.
While her siblings went on to chase classical music, Barber, 64, packed her life with theater.
She was on the scene when Twin Cities theater exploded, becoming a longtime star at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.
With affection, effervescence and a strong work ethic, Barber has tallied 70 performances with Chanhassen Dinner Theatres. She spearheads the theater’s community service projects. Barber, of Chanhassen, is also a familiar face to hundreds of the theater’s youth summer camp graduates, who remember the behind-the-scenes enchantment of working on their triple-threat talents of singing, acting and dancing.
Except for her birthplace of Evansdale, Illinois, and a time in New York City, Barber has lived in Minneapolis and the southwest metro her whole life. She attended Hopkins-Eisenhower High School. Her first show at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres was at the age of 21 in “Guys and Dolls,” under the direction of then-artistic director Gary Gisselman. The theater had three to four shows running at a time in the late 1970s and Barber was among the acting crowd that congregated at a familiar bar in downtown Minneapolis after hours.
“The Guthrie people would come and the Chanhassen people would come and there was this real feel of, ‘This is the beginning of the theater scene in Minneapolis,’” she said. “It’s much more corporate now and a little more hard to find. ... When I find an actor that I know gets it or has the same kind of feel or passion and commitment and discipline, I call them old school.
“There was a feeling of, ‘I know we’re new and we’re different. And here we go.’”
Barber hustled as a jingle singer for commercials, and acted at the Children’s Theatre Company, Theatre Latte Da and Guthrie Theater, among others.
She worked into her current role at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, where husband Michael Brindisi is artistic director and president. They raised daughter Cat, who is now acting in New York City.
She began accumulating what would add up to 70 shows at the dinner theater. The performances she thinks of fondly over the years were usually the most delightful ones, and the ones she was wary about at first.
“My whole bag is that we need to communicate the story to the audience,” she said. “That is the most important thing. I don’t care if their whole lives are changed. But if it makes them think, if it makes them smile … then that’s the job we need to do.”
Barber gleaned from her parents’ work ethic when she was young, and that of the older stars at the theaters. Now younger actors learn the same qualities from her.
Ultimately, Barber would like to retire to Italy with her family. Perhaps a buon viaggio, in the future, but for now, brava!