Brian Sostek as Phil Davis and Dieter Bierbrauer as Bob Wallace in the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts’ production of White Christmas.
“Will it be a white Christmas?” It’s still a little early to answer this perennial question in the Twin Cities, but if you head on over to St. Paul’s Rice Park you can catch some free ice skating and score tickets to a guaranteed White Christmas onstage. Just don’t wait too long – opening night tickets have been flying off the printer and into patrons’ hands, with limited availability remaining for opening night.
What’s in this recipe? This adaptation of the classic Bing Crosby film features 15 hit songs by Irving Berlin – and the talents of local singer-actor Dieter Bierbrauer as Bob Wallace. TCAR‘s Basil Considine caught up with Bierbrauer to discuss the life of a working actor, the charms of performing iconic shows, and more.
When did rehearsals begin for you?
Rehearsals began for me on the 13th [of November] – it was a Sunday.
Since the show’s rehearsal period covers Thanksgiving, did you get out of any awkward family events?
No, comment! You know what, my wife and I and our two kids (who are almost three [years’ old] and almost five [years’ old]) decided during this busy holiday time to also refinish our kitchen. We didn’t have much in the way of events to get into between the rehearsals and that, so we had our own, quiet Thanksgiving. Whether or not there were any awkward family events to get out of, I didn’t even open myself up to it.
With the kitchen refinishing, if you’re eating out on Christmas Day…
We’ll see about that. Usually, Thanksgiving for us is the smaller family [gathering] and Christmas is the large one.
Tell me how you got involved with White Christmas at the Ordway – did you audition? When did you find out you got cast?
Now that this is my third Christmas here, I look back at it and ask myself that same question –how did this happen, and how have I been lucky to return three years in a row?
I had to audition for James Rocco here at the Ordway a long time ago. Nothing really worked out in what we could put together, and at that time the Ordway really wasn’t doing a lot of their own productions [yet].
I [later] did a couple of his Broadway Songbook concerts and he started talking to me about how they had a big season coming up and were going to produce four of their own shows, including the holiday show A Christmas Story. He just had me come in and audition and I said, “Well, this is a great show, and I’d like to be in it.”
I didn’t think I was quite right for any of the principal parts, but [Rocco] saw it differently and cast me as one of the principals. Our working relationship has continued to grow [since then] and it’s been a really nice opportunity. We work well together.
Ultimately, [James Rocco] makes decisions on who gets cast and I’ve been lucky enough to be one of them. You get to know the family here at the Ordway [when doing this for a few years]. They’re all really good people – from the deck crew to our wonderful company manager, Renée Prola, to our costume designer Linda Salisbury, who’s done our costumes the last few years…everybody here. It’s just great.
It feels like the holidays now [to be at the Ordway] – it’s tradition! But it’s also theatre, it changes all the time…so we’ll see what happens.
Yes, sometimes the person who’s your daughter in one show ends up being something else. Give it a few years and they’ll be your wife onstage.
Speaking of holiday traditions, this is a stage adaptation of an iconic movie. In most versions that reach the stage, there’s a large shadow that Bing Crosby cast. How do you approach the role and where do you begin?
I watched the movie; Bing Crosby is Bing Crosby. Could you do a Bing Crosby imitation? Sure, you could. Being the fact that this is an adaptation of the character in the movie, [you need to know that] different things happen to the character. You have the responsibility and the opportunity to honor the script that you’ve been given and the character and how he’s prepared in that script.
There are some places in the score where I might have my own slight homage to Bing Crosby, but as for the character…I have to play it the way that I can play it, the script that I have, and the direction that I’ve been given.
If people want to see White Christmas with Bing Crosby…I’ll probably go back and watch the movie again myself before this is over, too. It’s a great movie, it’s beautiful – but it’s a movie that’s very different from a live stage event. Musically, too…these arrangements are all quite different. And there are different songs than in the movie. When I get to sing “Blue Skies” – just a quick blip in the movie that goes by quickly – we have a full, beautiful, heavily choreographed version.
I’m also more of a baritenor when it comes to musical theater stuff; Bing was a bass-baritone. He had that beautiful lower register; this would not be his key…and that’s how it’s arranged! I have to be honest to the music that I’m given as well.
It’s tricky – they’re always tricky, musicals based on movies, but more than anything else you want to be honest to the story.
I know there’s more than one version of the stage musical score – are you doing one of the versions where “Blue Skies” is the Act I finale?
That is one of the versions that we’re doing, yes. I know as we go through this that the stage management says, “We have so many versions and so many books…” Different versions have even been done with the set that we’re using, since the set comes from the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle (it’s a travel version that can be rented).
When we look at the props and the set that comes with it, we don’t always know which version of the show they’ve come from and if we need them. Fortunately, James Rocco has done the show more than one time and knows the show like the back of his hand. He’s one of the original directors of the show…I think there were two versions that were done almost simultaneously back in the day, and he was one of the two directors who were allowed to do it. He knows it left and right!
…with a tap solo backwards?
Yeah, he could probably do it with a tap solo backwards – I’d put money on it.
Tell me about a favorite song in this show.
Oh, boy…that’s tough! I’m not on the outside of all of them, so it’s hard to say.
I’ll put that down as “Count Your Blessings.”
[Laughs] That’s a beautiful song, but so are all of them! Ann Michels sings an amazing rendition of “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” that I get to chime in in the middle with “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Ann is many things – a tremendous actress-singer. She’s been singing jazz most of her life, and to see her sit down and get a chance in a show like this, to sing that song like the jazz lounge singer that she can be…it’s pretty tremendous to watch.
“Blue Skies” is a beautiful song, an amazing song that I get to do…if I could step outside of it all, I’d put it way up there. They’re all amazing – it’s Irving Berlin. How do you differentiate? I’m [just] enjoying doing every single one of them that I get to do.
Have you worked across from co-star Ann Michels before?
Ann and I have known each other for many, many years. We met years ago doing a show together at the Illusion Theater, we’ve worked together at Chanhassen, at Theatre Latté Da, done Parade across from each other… It’s good when you can work with people that you’re already comfortable with. There’s a lot of trust already in the scene work and things like that, and I’ve always known her to be a tremendous professional.
In the last two years, as Lowertown has developed in St. Paul and the city’s downtown has come alive, parking has really changed. Where do you as an actor find parking for rehearsals?
Whenever I’ve worked in downtown St. Paul, parking has been a game to be played. There aren’t as many meters as downtown Minneapolis, but it’s just as bad. Luckily for us, our wonderful company manager Renée Prola works out a deal with one of the local ramps and offers us slightly discounted rates. We can basically purchase a parking pass to park in a ramp for all rehearsals and shows.
You could probably park in one of the other $5 lots for each show and walk a bit, but this keeps us almost connected [as we walk to the theatre] and mostly out of the elements. It’s mostly from the grace of Renée and the Ordway, and helps us out.
Speaking of dry and out of the cold, while it hasn’t exactly been dry of late, it’s certainly gotten colder. When it gets colder, what happens to your self-care for your voice? Do you have certain precautions you take, scarfs you get out, Neti pots that multiply…?
Generally, it’s that sudden loss of humidity that plays with me the most, more so than the cold. I’ve lived in the Midwest most of my life, so you get pretty used to the cold. As soon as the radiators kick on and all that humidity is lost with the loss of summer…that’s when the humidifiers come out.
Because I have small kids and they are what they are… You basically have to give it up to whatever’s happening around you and not worry, because I have a couple of little germ factories at home. That’s just the way it goes [as a parent], and there’s no getting around that.
“Daddy’s little bubonic plague carrier! You’re so cute!”
Yes. But for me, the cold is just the cold and a nice hot shower goes a long way.
What’s on deck for you after the show, besides hopefully seeing the family a little bit and getting the kitchen finished?
I don’t have any full theatre productions up on deck yet, but I do have a side show that I do with another actor in White Christmas, Randy Schmeling. We do a show called Power Balladz; we’ve been doing it for a lot of years and have a weekend of that at Chanhassen at their Fireside Theatre.
So far, it seems that people like it – we sell a decent amount of tickets – so that’s what’s on tap for January. There’s a lot of year coming up.
How did Power Balladz come to be? You worked at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres before – did they say, “Would you like to come out and not get into makeup?
No – Power Balladz was the brainchild of Dan Nycklemoe and Mike Todaro, who first performed the show themselves in 2002 at Bryant Lake Bowl [in Minneapolis]. When they brought it back around in 2009, they did a full run at the Lab Theatre, and it’s had a number of different incarnations since then, including one that we did Off-Broadway in New York. Since it’s come back, it’s been in different bits and pieces [rather than one contiguous, unchanging show].
When we decided to do it at Chanhassen, they [Chanhassen Dinner Theaters] had just made a decision to stop producing full-run musicals in their Fireside Theatre and turn it into a concert venue. They do a lot of stuff [there now], and it’s worked out really well for them. It’s brought a whole new demographic in and a lot of other things, and our show just fits into that space.
When Mike [Todaro] first brought it to them, it did pretty well. Now that it’s been a few years, we have a fairly solid following out there. We last did it in August, and we’ll probably do it three times a year, 2-3 nights each weekend we’re out there.
Tell me a bit about your working process as an actor. You get the script – do you read it and start trying to commit it to memory first, to get familiar with it first, or…?
My process is getting familiar with it first and then trying to take a bite out of the music right away. I tend to learn the best on my feet; when we head in to rehearsal, [at the Ordway] they let us know what’s coming up each day. That way you can get prepared and wrap your head around it on your way in. Then you start to make a lot of discoveries on your feet and get a lot in your head. Every time you do a scene, you have to be open to discovering a lot of new things and working on moments.
For me, as a new tapper (as of this year), I’m trying to make sure I get all my tap steps in – but it’s really defining the beats and moments [in the last week]. Once you get into costume and get your props and the lights, it really helps. Or, at least, it really helps me.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add before we sign off?
I’d never seen the stage version before getting my script and score. It’s a beautiful show! It’s amazing to me how, talking to people about it, how many people outside the theatre say “I love that movie,” “I love that show,” and “It’s one of my favorite Christmas things.” It’s now become one of mine as well.
When we talked about the difference between a movie and a stage musical…when people come to see this, even though it’s not the movie that they know, they get to be with it, live… They’re going to feel like they’re inside it. When we get to that song [“White Christmas], they’re probably going to be singing along, too.
I’m pretty sure there’re going to be a lot of people singing along under their breath for other songs. Last year [during The Sound of Music], you couldn’t stop people from singing along with “Edelweiss”; I don’t think you can stop people from singing “White Christmas” as well, either, and I love it. It becomes more of a community event, rather than people just sitting around and watching, and I think that’s a wonderful type of show to have for the holidays.
White Christmas plays through Dec. 31 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.