BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — No matter where he's working, Broadway choreographer-director Greg Ganakas almost always comes home to his native Michigan for Christmas.
And for the last few years, he's been bringing some of his Broadway friends with him.
Ganakas, who grew up in East Lansing, directs an annual show for Michigan State University's Wharton Center for the Performing Arts. This year's original production, "A Christmas Cabaret," will come to the City Opera House, too, by way of Wharton's management agreement with the downtown Traverse City venue.
The show, with musical arrangements by "Jersey Boys" conductor Keith Thompson, features six Broadway performers, at least one of them also from Michigan. Together the veterans of hits shows like "Rent," "Spiderman," "Legally Blonde" and "Wedding Singer" will sing, dance and act their way through a production whose premise is dreaming about the beauty of the holidays in Michigan while being stuck in an airport during Christmas.
"I think the whole idea for us is to share what it's like for us to be home for the holidays and have a Michigan Christmas, which I've had my whole life," said Ganakas, whose skits and production numbers embrace Christmas standards, jazz, pop and cabaret show tunes, while giving a nod to Motown, Yoopers and other Michigan institutions. "It's got warm and fuzzy connected to it at all times."
The show opens this weekend in East Lansing and moves to Traverse City Dec. 18 and 19. It features special guest Lupe Izzo, wife of award-winning Michigan State University head basketball coach Tom Izzo, whose lifelong passion for theater and dance finally got an outlet in Ganakas' first Michigan-based production in 2009.
"When we came up with the idea of doing something, he wanted to come here and give back to East Lansing," said Lupe Izzo, who also grew up in East Lansing and attended grade school with Ganakas at St. Thomas Aquinas. "I know his mom very well. She was kind of my mentor because Greg's dad (the legendary Gus Ganakas) also was an MSU basketball coach."
Izzo studied dance as a youth and took ballet for fitness until about five years ago. Though she's not a professional performer, she said she's made friends with many of the Broadway folks, even going to New York to see their productions. She looks forward to their annual visits to help put on the Wharton show.
"It's kind of fun learning it and putting it together when they get here," she said. "I'm in awe, but I'm not intimidated."
In Traverse City, the performers will be backed by local dancers and musicians including Minda Nyquist, a frequent Old Town Playhouse choreographer, and Laurie Sears, a saxophonist and flutist with Interlochen and Traverse Symphony Orchestra connections.
The show also will feature live cameo and video appearances by TV meteorologist Mark Watkins, celebrity chef and part-time area resident Mario Batali, Grand Traverse Pie Co. owner and former SwingShift and the Stars contestant Denise Busley, and author and National Writers Series founder Doug Stanton.
"The whole idea of the show is that wherever we would go, we would localize it," said Ganakas, who cast Stanton in a Yooper skit and got Batali to give a shout-out from the New York set of the hit ABC-TV series, "The Chew." "I had my ear to the ground the whole year to find out who are the local color, local celebrities, the people everybody loves. I wanted to choose the right ones for the right purpose."
Ganakas has degrees in musical theater from the University of Michigan and New York University and has been involved with everything from Broadway shows to Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular. He also helps put on Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
But he said "A Christmas Cabaret" lends itself better to the more charming setting of the City Opera House.
"There's a sort of sweetness and beauty to this show, like the Opera House itself," he said.
Tickets are $15 for students and $30, $45 and $48 for adults, plus fees. For more information, visit www.cityoperahouse.org.