Ann Michels has performed with the George Maurer Group for 23 years, but never in her hometown.
That changes Saturday, Sept. 7 when Michels and her jazz band perform during a new Merner Mini Jazz Festival held at the Cathedral of Our Merciful Savior. Her act is part of a two-night series that begins with Faribault band Jivin’ Ivan and the Kings of Swing at the same time and place Sept. 6.
“The idea was to promote local musicians this first time,” said Joel Raaen, Cathedral coordinator of the Merner Mini Jazz Festival. “If we get a good crowd, we will try to keep this going.”
The concerts, said Raaen, gives people who don’t go to bars a chance to hear Jivin’ Ivan, a group he described as “some of the best musicians in Faribault.” The George Maurer Group, he said, also includes some top musicians of the Twin Cities.
Apart from Michels, the George Maurer group is composed of Maurer on piano, Muggsy Lauer on guitar, Scott Chabot on drums, Jeff Engholm on bass and Richard Witteman on trumpet.
The group formed 23 years ago, and although the individual members have mostly branched out, they still collaborate at least a couple times a year to perform Tin Pan Alley jazz tunes along with some of their original music.
“It should be a lot of fun,” said Michels. “We’ve all been together so long, it’s very natural for us to be together. I think that they’re incredibly talented human beings.”
Michels’ talents extend beyond her band. Her extensive theater background includes roles at Chanhassen Dinner Theater, The Guthrie, Ordway and Theater Latté Da among others. She currently does understudy work for actors on vacation in the Chanhassen production of “Mama Mia!” and looks forward to starring in “Bernarda Alba” at Theatre Latté Da later this year and then playing Marian in Chanhassen’s “The Music Man.”
In the theater world, Michels needs to constantly think one step ahead to secure her next role. But when she returns to Faribault, it’s an opportunity for her to look back on how much she’s accomplished.
“There’s something about it that feeds me,” said Michels, who graduated from Faribault High School in 1988. “I often forget where I came from, and when I go back to Faribault it just sort of sparks that child in me; it sparks my soul. I have a sense of not only where I’ve come from, but my journey.”
Michels lives in North Minneapolis with her husband, singer/actor Matt Riehle, and their two dogs, Lucy and Millie, and cat, Keet. She last performed in Faribault a couple years ago, at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School, while touring with the Minnesota-based musical “Sweetland.” Even though Faribault isn’t her top performing outlet, she visits her hometown as often as possible to see her mom, Cinda Michels.
“Going home is really a joyful experience for me, and I’m glad my mom is still there so I have a reason to go,” said Michels.
Michels grew up in the era when Michael Hanson, for whom the FHS Performing Arts Center is named, served as the high school’s theater director.
“He was an exceptional theater artist and we were so lucky as students to have him as a theater director,” said Michels of Hanson. “He was one of the first people who ever led me to believe that I had any talent.”
Michels also credits her high school choir director, Randy Schafer, for helping her kick-start her theater career.
“[Schafer] saw that I had a gift that needed further exploration beyond what he felt he was able to offer, so he took me to his voice teacher in the Cities when I was a senior, and the two of them decided together that he would pay for voice lessons for me as long as I needed with her,” said Michels. “He was just a young, upcoming choir director who just this year retired with the most amazing career.”
Schafer wanted to make sure money didn’t deter Michels from further honing her vocal skills. Being raised by a single mom, Michels appreciated the gesture.
It took many years before Michels considered theater a realistic career path for herself. Coming from a family of “practical, pragmatic people,” she didn’t consider professional singing a possibility. Instead, she became an English teacher after college and coached high school gymnastics. But her voice teacher encouraged her to take a go at the stage sooner than later.
As a classically trained singer, Michels initially considered a path in opera. After realizing the scarcity of work in that genre, she shifted her focus to musical theater. She began landing roles, and it’s been her bread and butter ever since. She gradually “whittled away” her day job until 2003, when she had enough financial support from being a theater actress alone.
“I imagine I feel more secure than most people in this business in this town, but I still worry constantly about getting work,” said Michels “It never goes away.”
Despite the uncertainty that comes with being a performer, Michels considers herself fortunate to land roles at Chanhassen, not only because she loves the theater, but also because shows tend to run at least six months.
Returning to her hometown also instills a sense of gratitude in Michels.
“It all came from Faribault,” she said. “It took a long time for me to believe in myself, but I always had teachers who pushed me, who set the bar high and encouraged me to jump over it. I wouldn’t be where I am today without those people.”