If the MeshugaNutcracker sounds like a joke, that’s because it kind of is. The musical, a lighthearted Hanukkah knock-off of the original ballet, began as a pun — the kind of pun that is rightfully met with loud groans of discouragement.
As the story goes, four years ago the Bay Area Jewish community asked Scott and Shannon Guggenheim, who ran a production company, to create a play for the holiday season that reflected Jewish culture.
“Jews would actually go to see The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol just to have something fun to do during the holidays,” Shannon recalled.
When the duo discovered that Jews were embracing the Christmas spirit for the same reason that farm kids tip over cows, Scott said it was crazy.
“No, it’s meshugana,” said Shannon, referring to the Yiddish word for crazy. “Meshuga…nutcracker.”
And thus it was born. Scott and Shannon took the pun and went to work with Scott’s brother, Stephen. They took on the roles of director, choreographer and music director and developed the idea into a full-blown production with original music and a cast of eight actors singing and romping across the stage.
The plot goes like this: a troop of actors from the shtetl of Chelm kill time waiting for their director by kicking around Hanukkah tales. The story of Judah Maccabee is told, of course, but so are folk tales from the Middle Ages and stories from the Holocaust.
However, this is fun, family theater, so even the serious content is delivered with Borscht Belt humor and in colorful costumes that are a cross between Wizard of Oz and Culture Club.
Over the past three years, the show has had continued success and growth. The first season had a short run of eight shows. The following year, the show was put on in four different cities, and this year it is traveling outside California for the first time with a production in Scottsdale, Arizona in addition to Seattle.
The show will have a two-night run on Dec. 20 and 21 at the Bagley Wright Theatre at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.
According to Shannon, much of the music is recognizably Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s famous compositions, but reworked with Jewish lyrics and a klezmer-inflected swagger. The whole atmosphere is Broadway musical in the vein of Fiddler on the Roof.
One of the show’s traditions is a cameo by a distinguished member of the host city’s Jewish community. The honoree on Dec. 20 will be Rabbi James Mirel of Temple B’nai Torah. At the climax of the story, he will appear on stage to explain to the audience the true spirit of Hanukkah.
The honoree for the second performance has not yet been chosen, said Shannon.
Though most descriptions of the show inevitably make is sound like kitsch, Shannon ensures that it’s not.
“I don’t tell this enough, but it is an exceptionally professional show,” she said, also explaining that theater has proven an effective and enjoyable method of teaching Judaica.
“I think it’s so important for families this time of year to do something Jewish, she said. “That’s what this is — to be proud and Jewish and to do something big and grand.”