MGM’s 1948 “Easter Parade,” a lightweight story about vaudeville performers, persists in memory thanks to Irving Berlin’s score and the screen pairing of an out-of-retirement Fred Astaire with a young Judy Garland. The world preem of its stage adaptation at Chanhassen Dinner Theaters in Minnesota smartly avoids trying to add too much weight to the narrative, opting instead to frost it with several layers of confectioner’s gloss and an admirably lavish attention to detail.
Produced in an arrangement with the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, the show respects the org’s curatorial mission while the Chanhassen group breathes as much vitality into the work as it will bear. Extensive book is by Tom Briggs, who also wrote the script for “State Fair,” which appeared at Chanhassen a decade ago after a short Broadway run in 1995.
Inside showbiz dominates the narrative. Hot hoofers Don (Michael Gruber) and Nadine (Michelle Barber) are at the top of their game when Nadine opts to accept a role on Broadway. Charming Don’s narcissism, portrayed with maximum unctuousness by Gruber, is largely responsible for Nadine’s dropping out of both their romance and their stage act.
Don grabs small-time dancer Hannah Brown (Ann Michels) and takes the stage with her in Nadine’s place. The results are disastrous, until Don recognizes Hannah’s vocal prowess and adjusts their act accordingly.
In the meantime, Don’s agent, Johnny (Keith Rice), nurses a major crush on Hannah, for a time mistakenly believing she has eyes only for the self-absorbed Don.
The action plays out on Nayna Ramey’s lavish and versatile sets, with Sandra Nei Schulte’s tasteful costumes adding to a visual palette from creams and pastels to blacks and crimsons.
A 10-piece orchestra, led by Thomas Mustachio, tackles Berlin’s score with richness and precision, from the swells of “Happy Easter” and “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk” to Barber’s showcase “Shaking the Blues Away.” In Chanhassen’s relatively small 600-seat room, the sound finds a rich acoustic fit.
Gruber proves to be a leading man worthy of his movie-musical predecessors. In a pencil-thin moustache and with a knowing smirk, he lends depth to his entirely self-serving hoofer, and his transformation isn’t overplayed, but left to open-ended suggestion.
“Steppin’ Out With My Baby” is astonishing as Gruber seduces the young women in the cast, then leads the males in a complicated tap-dance rendition of the song’s melody.
Michels has a lovely voice and uses her character’s hapless dancing ability to comic effect. But the actress doesn’t really connect with Gruber, and a scene in which Don is supposed to trick her into doing more work falls entirely flat. Similarly lacking impact is Hannah’s romance with Johnny; Rice plays a single note of earnest guilelessness all night, and, by the time Johnny and Hannah connect, we scarcely care.
There are other discordant notes, including a running gag about pompous French waiters. But it’s to the show’s credit that “Easter Parade” never feels long, and its musical and visual prowess continually quell doubts about its storytelling.
Chanhassen reportedly has been approached by national producers interested in the show, which reps a new property for R&H. The production has an embarrassing richness of tunes, a book that captures the pace and tone of a diverting film, and production numbers that offer ample opportunities to showcase individual talent. This staging provides the cake, with extra icing and a rosette on top.