January 22, 2019

Chanukah show adds Jewish flavor to ‘Nutcracker’

Tchaikovsky ain’t got nothing on “The MeshugaNutcracker,” a Chanukah-fied rendition of the holiday classic, running Dec. 17 to Jan. 1 in Gindi Auditorium at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Sure, there’s no Snow Queen or Rat King, but there are human dreidels.

 “We always joke, ‘Is Tchaikovsky rolling in his grave?’ ” said Shannon Guggenheim, the show’s producer, co-writer and choreographer, and an actress appearing in the musical comedy, which she admitted is “very tongue-in-cheek.” 

Guggenheim has staged the show with her husband, Scott, and brother-in-law Stephen for the past 13 years. “It’s our bat mitzvah year!” she quipped.

The idea for “The MeshugaNutcracker” first came about when Guggenheim, a San Jose local and a Jew by Choice, was pregnant with her first child and, in her own words, “a December dilemma was fresh on our minds.” For Guggenheim, that dilemma could be summed up in two words: “The Nutcracker.”

 “Even though families were Jewish, they were going to ‘The Nutcracker,’ they were going to ‘A Christmas Carol,’ they were going to have all these great holiday experiences because they wanted something to do with their families even though it didn’t speak to their culture,” she said. 

It’s no secret that Chanukah’s menorah always gets overshadowed by the Christmas tree. So the Guggenheims, expectant parents and theater lovers, decided to do something about it in 2003. “It started out as, ‘Could we do a show about Chanukah and what would that look like?’ ” Guggenheim said.

This was the start of “The MeshugaNutcracker,” a musical comedy told by the fools of Chelm, a slapstick shtetl popularized in Jewish folklore. There are eight stories in total, each one illuminating a theme celebrated during the Festival of Lights. 

 “It is lighthearted. There is so much comedy, silliness and exuberance, but we temper it with this idea that we can’t be where we are today without remembering those who came before us,” Guggenheim said, referring to the show’s moments of reflection, whether about the Maccabean war (“a devastating three-year-long battle”) or the Holocaust. 

During the show’s 13-year run, it has raised more than $250,000 for charitable organizations, including day schools, synagogues and federations. Still open for nonprofits to participate, a portion of the ticket price is donated when ticket buyers use a code belonging to the nonprofit of their choice. “It’s all about giving back,” Guggenheim said.

The last time “The MeshugaNutcracker” was in Los Angeles was in 2006, having played since then in San Francisco and San Jose.

During the play’s intermission, concessions will include holiday staples like latkes and sufganiyot, Chanukah cards, dreidels and gelt. 

Next year, Guggenheim hopes to take the show to New York. “We have a lead on a venue and we’re hoping it will still be available to us next winter,” she said. 

In association with Fathom Events, this year’s production will be filmed and broadcast via high-definition streaming to movie theaters across the country. 

“There is nothing else out there that truly celebrates Chanukah on the same scale, along the same importance as ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Nutcracker.’ We need something that is Chanukah,” Guggenheim said. 

Her daughter Lily, now 14, has grown up with this show, which converts Tchaikovsky’s trademark melodies into klezmer-inspired Chanukah ballads.

 “Certainly my favorite memory is when she was 3 or 4 and we were in an elevator,” Guggenheim said. “It was the holiday season and piping through the music was one of the songs in ‘The Nutcracker.’ And she went, ‘Mom! They’re playing your song!’ ”