Traverse City News and Events

Christmas Cheer: 3 Entertainers With TC Roots Hit It Big In New Holiday Movies

By Craig Manning | Dec. 25, 2022

Whether you’re spending Christmas with the whole family or snowed in at home, ‘tis the season for holiday movie marathons. And what better way to put a local twist on those Christmas traditions than with a trio of new movies featuring talents minted right here in Traverse City?

Khaki Pixley, Daniel J. Edwards, and Dayne Sempert are three entertainers with roots in northern Michigan and careers that took flight on local stages. They are also all making their mark this holiday season in major Christmas movies that you can stream right now on services like Disney Plus, Amazon Pirme, and Freevee. So, if you’re not in the mood to fire up Elf for the 600th time, or if you don’t feel like litigating the question of whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie (it is), here’s how to catch some local stars on your TV screen today – and to get a hefty dose of holiday spirit along the way.

Let’s start with Pixley, who is a Traverse City native and who discovered her love for acting and singing at Traverse Bay Community School (now Woodland School) more than two decades ago. Pixley graduated in 2004 from Traverse City West Senior High, where she starred in musical productions of shows like Les Misérables (in the role of Éponine) and West Side Story (as Anita). This holiday season, you can see Pixley in Christmas with Felicity, a feel-good rom-com about a struggling big-city baker who returns to her small Wisconsin hometown for the holidays. Though in no mood for festive celebration, Felicity slowly regains her holiday spirit thanks to her family – particularly her Christmas-obsessed sister Grace (played by Pixley). Oh, and there’s a handsome midwestern farm boy in there, too.

Christmas with Felicity actually premiered last holiday season as an AMC+ original, and even earned a strong review at the time from Chicago Sun Times critic Richard Roeper (famously one half of the Ebert & Roeper duo). Roeper called the film a “thoroughly charming confection,” praising the “myriad of gifted local [Chicago] actors delivering warm and witty performances against the backdrop of wintry locales that look like the inside of a snow globe.” But the film is more widely available this holiday season, across TV, DVD, and streaming platforms like Freevee, Flut TV, and Tubi. Pixley says the wider distribution has given the film a second life and a whole new audience.

“I'm thrilled it's out there,” Pixley tells The Ticker of the film. “I'm excited for everyone to see it. I love Christmas movies, especially these happy cheesy, formulaic, ‘you know exactly what's going to happen’ Christmas movies. This year. I’ve gotten the feeling that everybody watching it is having a good time, which I love. And it's also a lot of fun for me to revisit, because it was a joy to make.”

Beyond Christmas films, one of the most beloved holiday traditions for many locals is catching the annual production of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet The Nutcracker as presented by Dance Arts Academy. This holiday season, at least two new film versions of The Nutcracker have hit the small screen, and both of them feature Dance Arts alums who previously danced in Traverse City versions of the show.

Dan Johnson (stage name Daniel J. Edwards) is a successful voice actor with a background that includes ensemble work on Broadway and in touring musical theater productions. In 2011, he performed in the Broadway revival of Anything Goes, starring Sutton Foster and Colin Donnell. That production won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Choreography, and the Tony promotional tour took the cast (including Johnson) on a talk-show TV circuit that saw him performing on Good Morning American and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, among others. He’s since built an impressive career as a voiceover artist and has been featured in numerous films and TV shows – most notably the English dubbed versions of the popular Japanese anime series Yu-Gi-Oh!

Before all that, Johnson was a dancer growing up in Manistee, Michigan. “I developed a sense for wanting to be a performer when eight years old,” he tells The Ticker. “I was taking dance classes, and then it kind of escalated to everything else – so, taking piano lessons, getting involved in music, lots of time on the stage. And growing up in Michigan was great for that, because we’re close to a lot of these cool schools that, over the summer, can teach you how to do all these artistic things. So, I was very lucky to attend places like Interlochen Arts Camp and Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp.”

Eventually, Johnson’s interest in dance brought him to Traverse City, where he says he danced with Dance Arts Academy for “five or six years” before he graduated high school in 2006. And along the way, he made several appearances in annual Nutcracker productions, including as the Nutcracker Prince.

This year, Johnson is back in the world of The Nutcracker – and back in the titular role, no less – as part of the new animated Lionsgate film The Nutcracker and the Magic Flute. The film, which is an English dub of a Russian film, features Johnson’s voice acting (and even a little bit of his singing) and is available for rent this holiday season on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and most other streaming platforms.  Johnson says lending his voice to the film was a fun, nostalgic experience for how it reminded him of his Dance Arts Academy days, as well as a few other Nutcracker shows. “When I booked [the job], it was funny,” he laughs. “Because this now means I’ve done The Nutcracker, in some form, 13 times.”

Johnson also isn’t the only former Dance Arts Academy Nutcracker Prince making an appearance in a new Nutcracker film this year. When The Ticker last touched base with Dayne Sempert, it was November 2012 and he was a 12-year-old dancer from Elk Rapids making regular commutes to Traverse City to prepare for his first appearance as the Nutcracker Prince in a Dance Arts Academy Nutcracker. He played the role twice in Traverse City and then, after high school, he headed off to Los Angeles to pursue a professional career in the entertainment industry.

This season, Sempert can be seen as an ensemble dancer in The Hip Hop Nutcracker, now streaming on Disney +. The Hip Hop Nutcracker, described as “a remixed and reimagined version of the classic, smashing hip hop dance and Tchaikovsky’s timeless music together into a heart-stirring and inspirational holiday event,” has actually been running as a live stage show and touring production for 10 years. This year’s Disney + version is “inspired by the live stage phenomenon.”

Pictured: Bottom left, a co-star (left) and Khaki Pixley (right) in a still from Christmas with Felicity; bottom middle, Dan Johnson in the 2008 Dance Arts Academy production of The Nutcracker; bottom right, Dayne Sempert preparing for his first Nutcracker in 2012.

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