MeshugaNutcracker returns with fresh Hanukkah shtick

The fools of Chelm are back just in time for Hanukkah.

“The MeshugaNutcracker,” a live musical that features the citizens of mythical Chelm acting out Hanukkah stories along with dreidels dancing to recorded music from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” has been entertaining Bay Area children and families since 2003. After a hiatus of several years, the show will again grace local stages this December.

Original cast of “The MeshugaNutcracker” performs “The Story of Judah Maccabee”

“We’ve always joked that it’s ‘Waiting for Guffman’ meets the Borscht Belt,” said Shannon Guggenheim, who wrote the two-hour show with her husband, Scott Guggenheim. Scott’s brother Stephen, an integral part of the creative team, did the vocal arrangements, Shannon and Stephen are key performers, and Scott directs the production.

The play runs from Dec. 4 to 14 at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco and Dec. 25 to 28 at the Heritage Theatre in Campbell, playing for the first time at these venues.

This “Nutcracker” send-up takes place in the legendary shtetl of Chelm, a fictional town from Jewish folklore filled with fools who occasionally bumble into flashes of wisdom. The residents come together to put on a Hanukkah production, but their director doesn’t show up. While they wait for him, the actors, clad in wild hats and costumes, tell eight Hanukkah stories that range from the silly to the serious.

During a season filled with Christmas-oriented family entertainment, “MeshugaNutcracker” offers a Jewish alternative. “It’s really about celebrating Hanukkah in a similar way to how folks celebrate Christmas,” said Shannon, who has two daughters. “As practicing Jews, most of us know that Hanukkah is not one of the key holidays. But it’s become a culturally equivalent holiday to Christmas. So instead of families going to see ‘The Nutcracker’ or ‘A Christmas Carol,’ they can go see Judah Maccabee.”

The Guggenheims produce theater and events professionally through the San Jose-based Guggenheim Entertainment, but they lost their San Jose performance space, the Retro Dome, at the beginning of 2013. Since then, they’ve spent their time regrouping and hatching plans to take “The MeshugaNutcracker” on the road. They’re planning an off-Broadway debut in 2015 for the New York holiday season.

The Guggenheims have updated the play over the years. This year’s production includes three new stories.

“It’s got that kind of homespun feel,” said Shannon, who plays Treitel Schlmazel in the production. The names of the characters say it all: Gronam Schmegegi, the mayor (Stephen Guggenheim), Velvel Schnook (Jeremy Kreamer, Yacob Schlemiel (Jackson Davis) and Yetta Schmendrick (Krista Wigle). Other cast members are Susan Gundunas, Hilary Little and Benjamin Pither.

At the close of each show, a local celebrity, rabbi or an audience member selected at random is invited onstage to play the director, adding a bit of improvisational merriment to this holiday confection. And it’s all for a good cause: Often the guest star is promoting a charity, and the actors end the night by passing their oversize hats around the audience to raise money along with the merriment.

“The MeshugaNutcracker!” plays Dec. 4-14, Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., S.F., and Dec. 25-28, Heritage Theatre, 1 W. Campbell Ave., Campbell. $72 adults, $54 children 12 and under and Dec. 4-6 previews.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.