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Playhouse guest director is the man with the plan

T-minus three weeks from show time and the cast of the Duluth Playhouse’s production of “Anything Goes” was in a unique position: Songs were memorized. Choreography was committed. The entire show was blocked.

They were ready.

Credit for this one goes to Michael Matthew Ferrell, an Ivey Award-winning choreographer-director from the Minneapolis area who was brought in by the Playhouse for the production. Ferrell, who comes from a teaching background, said he needs to have a show plotted before rehearsals begin.

“It’s the way I like to work,” he said. “Some director-choreographers approach projects more spontaneously and … open up the room so that you would show up and kind of play and find things that work.

“That makes me very nervous. I’ve always been one to show up with a really clear concept.”

“Anything Goes” is a Cole Porter musical set aboard a cruise ship en route to London and filled with love and mistaken identities.

There’s a stowaway, an heiress, a lounge act and her backup singers and an enemy of the public. The show premiered in the mid-1930s and popularized songs like “Anything Goes” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.”

Before arriving in Duluth six weeks ago, Ferrell had culled pieces of the 1930s script and a 1980s rewrite for the Playhouse’s production that more prominently features Reno’s Angels. He considered orchestration and dug back to capture the Cole Porter-ness of the original.

Ferrell said he came into rehearsals with an era, a color palette and an overall feel. He had the whole show in his head.

Sarah Diener, who plays one of Reno’s Angels, said that Ferrell’s style gave the actors more time to play and develop characters. She was able to more thoroughly realize a relationship between her character and one played by Jody Kujawa.

“When you’re doing a play, that’s the point you want to get to,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a little scramble-y. It was so nice. It was a great sigh of relief.”

Christine Seitz, director of the Playhouse, said she was looking for a director who also was a choreographer and heard about Ferrell from an actor who worked with him at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres.

“I knew right away that he was the right fit for us,” she said.

Seitz said she told him she was looking for someone who would provide a learning experience for the cast.

“He responded that is who he is at heart. This is what motivated him,” she said. “I know that our local artists are yearning to grow and learn and be challenged. That’s pretty much the result of what’s happening here.”

On Wednesday, Ferrell said he had a few fixes and polishes going into the final night of preview performances. Actors, he said, have been gracious about his critiques.

“They’re hungry and they’re eager,” he said. “They want it as bad as I do. There are good productions and there are great productions and there is that fine line between the two. In my mind, we’re at great production right now.”

Diener said Ferrell has raised the bar for performers, the design team and other directors.

“This has been fantastic to see that we can meet challenges that come our way as an acting and performing community,” she said.

“And he’s just a lot of fun.”

Ferrell has worked with Park Square Theatre, Theatre Latte Da, The Ordway Center, The Children’s Theatre Company, Chanhassen Theatres and Bloomington Civic Theatre. His work has been featured at the Minnesota Opera Company, Sesame Street, Disney World and the Guthrie Theatre Cabaret shows.

Ferrell also founded Alive & Kickin’, a musical ensemble starring senior citizens performing pop hits.

He will return later this year to direct the Playhouse’s final production of 2014, “White Christmas.”