By SEAN LEY
AAP staff writer
Minnesota’s theatres are nationally known as being second only to the actor’s Mecca, the ever-notable New York City theatres.
Those who have merely heard of The Chanhassen Dinner Theatre (CDT) have felt its notoriety, but only those who have attended one of it’s live theatre experiences truly knows it. Housed in the extended west metro city of Chanhassen, the dinner theatre is known to the theatre community as one of the Twin Cities’ great playhouses. The theatre’s current production, “Bye Bye Birdie!” (BBB), is the first time the timeless classic has been seen there over it’s long 44 year history.
“Bye Bye Birdie!” is the Broadway classic that thrust the acclaimed television personality Dick Van Dyke into the spotlight. It was the first of many of Van Dyke’s notable performances which include such classic major motion pictures as “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang“. Van Dyke’s legacy, however, may lie in “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, a television series that engaged 1960’s audiences nationwide, earning it a place on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
The story of ‘Birdie’ might remind you of the 1960’s rock and roll icon Elvis Presley, drafted into active military duty amidst his successful music career. Chanhassen’s rendition of ‘Birdie’ features no 1960’s television icons or rock and roll stars, but two of Minnesota’s Asian community’s promising young actors, both in their first major professional production.
The youngest of the two is 9-year-old, Grace Olsen, a fourth grader at Yinghua Academy Charter School in Northeast Minneapolis. She plays a small supporting role as a ‘Kid’ in BBB, a small start that could promise much greater roles in the future. Adopted as RuQiao from China in 2004, Grace has grown in duality with her linguistics and cultures, maintaining her Chinese heritage, becoming fluent in both English and Yinghua’s curriculum of Mandarin Chinese, renown as the world’s toughest language.
Grace has long demonstrated appreciation for the arts, including music, dance, and theatre. Studying dance and gymnastics since the age of 3, she has also been a professional print model since the age of 6. At 7, Grace appeared in her first national TV commercial on PBS, and more recently, participating in the New York City International Model and Talent Association competition, placing first-runner-up for her dance in the Talent Showcase.
Grace and her family are members of the Chinese American Association of Minnesota (CAAM), her mother also volunteers as the Rehearsal Coordinator for the CAAM Chinese Dance Theatre Annual Chinese New Year’s show. It was with the CAAM that dance inspired Grace, and offered her beginning. A 2012 journey to China also offered her lessons in ballet at the prominent Beijing Dance Academy, which helped her earn her place in productions with Ballet Minnesota.
The CDT’s other featured performer is Wes Mouri. Wes is a recent graduate theatre major of Bethel University, quickly earning himself a part in BBB’s Teen Ensemble. Wes’ role marks his first appearance following years of high school and community theatre, as well as vocal performance with his high school and church choirs.
Wes needs only to look back three generations to find his native Japanese roots, but they appear much sooner than you might imagine. His grandparents’ ties appear in World War II, with their meeting in a Wyoming Japanese-American Internment camp. Wes’ grandfather became an interpreter for U.S. General MacArthur, as well as being a trained architect and businessman who also spoke fluent Italian. His grandmother also had her ties to the struggle, knitting camouflage netting for U.S. soldiers. Following the bombing of Hiroshima, Wes’ grandfather changed his and his wife’s names, and relocated to Kansas City. Wes credits both his parents and grandparents with his success due to their support.
Wes is pleased to have found a role in CDT’s BBB. He remarked of his joy in the CDT’s history of long-running plays, family-oriented production participants, and the security and springboard it offers. Though Wes did not talk of his upcoming role at the CDT, if you miss him in BBB, you will have another opportunity to see him in the CDT’s next production, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”.
“Bye Bye Birdie” is a run of firsts, not only for the dinner theatre, but these two talented young actors. It is a lively production, reminiscent for those who recall the age of Elvis, and a likely favorite of those who have already seen it in action. “Bye Bye Birdie” is a Broadway classic of singer stardom that every theatre fan either has, or must see. The Chanhassen Dinner Theatre is truly a unique experience for theatregoers. Whether BBB will be your first, or second appearance in the seats of the CDT, prepare yourself for enjoyment; not only of the dinner, but the wonderful performance, especially that of these two up-and-coming actors.