Making the Magic of ‘White Christmas’ with Michael Ferrell

What does it mean to Duluth — specifically its theatre arts scene — when a recognized director like Michael Matthew Ferrell cannot wait to come back to the Duluth Playhouse stage? It means we’re headed in an exciting direction.

“I can’t express enough how fantastic it is to have someone with Michael’s experience and attitude here in Duluth,” Playhouse actor Matias Valero said.

It’s no secret Duluth’s theatrical offerings, let alone the entire arts scene, continue to grow with each passing year. Even more exciting is the quality of the talent continually displayed, and how that quality grows better and better with each performance.

The Duluth Playhouse is excited to welcome Michael Matthew Ferrell back into the director’s chair. Michael’s work was previously seen with last season’s musical Anything Goes, and he’s back for our 100th season with the holiday production of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

Matthew Michael Ferrell returns to the Playhouse.

Matthew Michael Ferrell returns to the Playhouse.

“As soon as I heard Michael would be back for another show. I knew I would audition for it, no matter what show it was,” says actress Sara Wabrowetz.

We asked Michael: “Why Duluth? What is it about our city that drives you to return for another show?”

Michael’s answer couldn’t be more straightforward. “Duluth carries a level of energy, and it’s creating a new level of professionalism. Duluth wants to see and have work that is Ivey Award winning. And it is at that level…just look at the types of shows being done already, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Les Miserables.”

It’s a high compliment to receive from “Mr. Michael” —as he is fondly referred to by his cast members — whose credits include the Guthrie , Mixed Blood, Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, Minnesota Opera, Theatre Latte Da, and many others. And its exciting to have Michael on board to help guide our Playhouse artists to the next level.

Sara Wabrowetz says it best: “We have talent and work ethic, but he’s taking us to a whole new level. I think he’s put a bit of much-needed pressure on us to step up our game, and it’s great to discover that we can that.”

Having the high quality for every production comes in part from the discipline expressed in the rehearsal room, and Mr. Michael has his rules. “On the first day, I sit down with the cast and tell them straight up what my rules are. If we play by them, magic is going to happen. If we’re constantly on our cell phones, we’re eating food, we’re chewing gum…all these things, that’s what we’re going to get.”

Mr Michael's rehearsal room rules.

Mr Michael’s rehearsal room rules.

Add in the infamous Mr. Michael workout (which he himself calls brutal), and he’s created a place where everyone is equal. “We’re all in this process together. It doesn’t matter if you’re the worst dancer standing next to the best dancer, we have to come together.”

“Mr. Michael has a great ability to command a room, similar to a drill instructor, but not with shouting and intimidation. He commands with love and encouragement,” says actor Drew Autio.

Michael has been dancing almost his entire life. His mother was a Rockette, and he first put on a pair of tap shoes at the young age of three. He kept training, and during high school, he was hired for his first professional job with the American Band Stand. Only within the last couple years of his career has he turned director and choreographer.

While it’s true the Playhouse produced White Christmas a few years ago, you can certainly expect a new take with Michael leading the way. Letting the music and research into the show’s time period guide him, Michael is set to bring a fresh take to our stage.

For Michael, the story is about one man’s selfless act of kindness and the community of friends he builds around it. As for the look for the production, he’s bringing the 40s show business into effect. Oftentimes productions focus heavily on the richness of Vermont in winter, the trees and the very nostalgic feel of the Christmas holiday. Not with Michael’s vision.

“I’ve moved the band onstage because if you go back in time, the acts were done with a live band and the band always came with a large group of singers back in the 40s. It was a very large group. You had the band, the singers, the headliners, and then backup dancers.”

The band will be visible at all times, dressed in traditional 40s garb and the singers will have vintage microphones. He;a also incorporating the workings and mechanics of show business by bringing in lighting instruments used back then. There are also a few fantastic dance numbers planned, along with great music, and overall, a very touching story.

Get your 40s dance groove on!

Get your 40s dance groove on!

——-

This story originally appeared in the December 2014 magazine publication of The Woman Today.

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