Michael Lowe sits on a park bench. He draws the collar of his shabby trench coat close around his neck and tucks his knees together, huddling against the cold. When that doesn't work, he reaches into his breast pocket, produces a metal flask and takes a swig, grimacing a little as he swallows.
The artistic director of Menlowe Ballet hasn't fallen on hard times. Instead, he has returned to the stage for a role in the first full-length ballet he has created for his company. The traditional holiday tale of "The Nutcracker" meets Frank Capra's 1946 classic film, "It's a Wonderful Life" in Lowe's "It's a Wonderful Nutcracker," which opens at the Menlo-Atherton Center for Performing Arts this Saturday, Dec. 12.
Lowe's role is an amalgam of the magnanimous Uncle Drosselmeyer, who sweeps in to the Christmas party bearing gifts, and Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey: a man down on his luck and feeling hopeless -- until an angel reminds him of his impact on the people he loves. According to Menlowe Ballet's executive director Lisa Shiveley, the aim of the show is to maintain some of the magic of "The Nutcracker," but to imbue the story with a deeper message about the spirit of the holidays.
"It's not about the stuff, the presents and gifts; it's about the presence of those you hold dear," Shiveley noted as she sat in the ballet studio last week watching the dancers rehearse Act I. "The central message of this show is that everyone has value."
Menlowe Ballet could have chosen to depart entirely from "The Nutcracker." Instead, the company is combining the Sugar Plum Fairy and the guardian angel, Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington, classical ballet and ballroom dance techniques in this mashup of Christmas traditions.
"There are plenty of really great, traditional 'Nutcrackers' around," Shiveley noted. "We don't want to compete; we want to add options for audiences in the area."
Ballet Master Julie Lowe played a central role in writing the script for the production.
"The goal was to take the spirit of the movie and the magic of the ballet and blend them into a story with a little more heart," she explained.
Like "It's a Wonderful Life," "It's a Wonderful Nutcracker" is set in upstate New York in the 1940s, which means the costumes (commissioned specifically for this show and designed by Stanford University professor Connie Strayer) and backdrops (painted in Utah and transported to the Peninsula on moving trucks) evoke the style of the postwar era. Though the choreography consists primarily of classical ballet technique, the show also features rising ballroom dance stars Chelsea Farrah and Eric Koptke. The couple specializes in the American Smooth style and recently competed at the Ohio Star Ball Championships, a prestigious annual ballroom dance competition. In "It's a Wonderful Nutcracker," Farrah and Koptke will dance the roles of Mrs. and Mr. Bailey, the parents of the family. They have choreographed their own jazzy pas de deux: a lighthearted blend of Balboa, Peabody and quickstep styles.
"It's our first time doing ballroom with a ballet company," noted the long-limbed Farrah, who herself studied classical ballet for 13 years.
With a cast of 20 professional dancers and more than 90 students from the associated school, the Menlo Park Academy of Dance, the production incorporates dancers from age 6 (they play the baby mice) to 60-something.
At the upper end of that spectrum, Michael Lowe is more accustomed to sitting in the audience than taking his place beneath the lights, but it's clear he's enjoying his starring role. During rehearsal, he took a quick break to discuss what it's like to join his dancers on stage.
"It's a lot of fun," he said, adding, "I'm not as visceral and young as I used to be, so it's also a lot of acting."
Dancer Terrin McGee-Kelly, who has been with the company since its inception, said dancing with Lowe in the company's first full-length ballet is particularly gratifying.
"He's my favorite partner," she said. "He's so animated. It's nice having him on this side for once."
McGee-Kelly dances the role of a Salvation Army volunteer and also the angel who appears to George "Drosselmeyer" Bailey, while the role of Mary, the oldest daughter of the Bailey family and this show's Clara, is danced by the expressive Julie Giordano, whose first lead role with the company was in last year's original Mongolian ballet, "The Legend of the Seven Suns."
Audiences need neither a knowledge of "The Nutcracker" nor "It's a Wonderful Life" to enjoy this production, though those who know the stories will catch familiar details and various amendments, from the dances of the Mouse Queen and the Lone Ranger Doll to the staircase finial that falls off.
With a professional technical director at the helm backstage and more pro dancers than the company has presented yet in a single production, Menlowe Ballet is stepping up its game for this show. Yet Julie Lowe was quick to emphasize the real message of this production:
"The presence of people in your life who are important is what makes the wonder and magic of the holidays really special."
What: "It's a Wonderful Nutcracker," presented by Menlowe Ballet
Where: Menlo-Atherton Center for Performing Arts, 555 Middlefield Road, Atherton
When: Saturday, Dec. 12 through Sunday, Dec. 20