While most Minnesotans may not recognize the name Michael Matthew Ferrell, hundreds of thousands experienced his work over the past three decades. A respected choreographer and dancer, he created dances for high-wattage shows at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, the Children's Theatre Company, Theatre Latte Da and Artistry, among others, and set his dances on the likes of Hollywood star Amy Adams and Tony nominee Laura Osnes.
Ferrell, who turned 61 on May 15, died Saturday in Minneapolis. He was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer last summer, according to his sister, Mary Margaret Paulson, who posted updates on his CaringBridge page.
"Michael could never really sit still," said Twin Cities stage veteran Tony Vierling, who danced in many shows choreographed by Ferrell and who was his partner for 17 years. "He had substance abuse issues from his teen years on and dance was a way to be physical. Whatever demon was calling him, he could ignore the call by focusing on dance and theater and choreography."
And what a career it has been. Ferrell choreographed a decade's worth of shows at Chanhassen, the nation's largest professional dinner theater. The movements he created were not just kinetic and apt. He brought a sense of visceral, inexorable propulsion to such shows as "Cats," "Annie," "The Sound of Music," "Camelot," "The Music Man," "Oklahoma!" and "My Fair Lady."
"Michael was one of those rare powerhouse guys who could create on the spot," said Michael Brindisi, artistic director of Chanhassen, where Ferrell first worked in 1988 before becoming resident choreographer. "Most directors and choreographers get together and say, 'What are you going to do with this number?' But we never planned anything out. We would work separately and meet in the rehearsal room and scramble and work our tails off. And you could ask Michael to do anything, and he would do it."
Brindisi recalled that in "Annie," he asked Ferrell to make the title character and Daddy Warbucks look magical, and Ferrell created dances that he remembers to this day.
"It looked like they were walking on water," Brindisi said. "That was his gift."
Ferrell choreographed a decades' worth of shows at Theater Latté Da, impressing founding artistic director Peter Rothstein with his spirit.
"Aside from the talent of the choreography, Michael's gift was what he brought to the [rehearsal] room," Rothstein said. "It was pure joy. He could transform a room instantly."
At Latte Da, they collaborated on such titles as "Gypsy," "Oliver!," "Cabaret," "Aida," "Company," "Spring Awakening," "Evita" and "The Full Monty."
Rothstein took Ferrell with him to gigs at other venues, including the Children's Theatre, where they worked on "High School Musical," "Annie," "Shrek," and the first revival of "A Year With Frog and Toad" after it had gone to Broadway.
"Whether he was working with trained dancers or non-dancers, Michael made people feel comfortable and he got them to do what they never imagined they could do," Rothstein said.
Ferrell reveled in people, and made folks of all body types, skin tones and gender identities feel welcome, said choreographer, director and casting director Kelli Foster Warder, who knew him for more than 40 years.
The two met when she was in first grade and taking classes from his mother, Judith "Dyan" Ferrell, a former Rockette who ran a dance studio in the south metro. Later, the two artists reconnected professionally, and he would introduce her to Latte Da, where she's now associate artistic director.
"If there has been an overwhelming outpouring of emotion for him, the common denominator was how Michael made people feel," Warder said. "He was magical in the way that he could see something special about someone and helped them see it, too. And that transformed people."
Ferrell came by his gifts both by genetics and interest. His Rockette mother "put tap shoes on all of us kids at age 2 or 3," Ferrell told St. Cloud-based Great Theatre in January 2020, one of his last gigs. "For me, it just stuck. I loved it."
He was born in Orange, Calif., and grew up in Burnsville, where, after her divorce, his mother moved with her five children while his father, police officer John Dwight Ferrell, remained on the West Coast. The budding dancer left high school, and the Twin Cities, as a teenager, moving west with his father. While out there, he danced on "American Bandstand."
Ferrell, who worked as a hairdresser early in his career, taught at schools and summer camps, and shared his love of dance with anyone, from children at Stages Theatre Company to adults in Alive & Kickin, a senior choir that performs rock and pop songs in nursing homes, community centers and theaters.
Aside from his sister of Bloomington, survivors include his partner Jeffrey Nelson of Minneapolis, aunt Mary Beth Hoover of Seattle, brothers John and Brian Ferrell of Minneapolis and William Ferrell of Lakeville, in addition to nieces and nephews.
Services are being planned.
Vierling said Ferrell's approach to dance also was his approach to life. He recalled an anecdote from when they had rented a duplex.
"He decided that the bathroom was not nice enough and he wanted to remodel it, but without asking the landlord," Vierling said. "Michael took a sledgehammer to the thing and as we were standing knee-deep in rubble, I asked, 'Do you know how to tile?' He said, 'No, I don't. But I will figure it out.' I was panic-stricken but that was Michael. He figured it out."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390