'The MeshugaNutcracker'

'The MeshugaNutcracker' is a crazy ride, in ways both good and bad
MeshugaNutcracker OY VEY: The residents of Chelm scramble to put together their annual Chanukah pageant after their director disappears.

Here's the premise of The MeshugaNutcracker! in a nutshell: It's December, and eight residents of the little Jewish village of Chelm are presenting their annual Chanukah pageant, a collection of songs and vignettes celebrating the Festival of Lights, with tunes lifted from a certain Christmas-themed Tchaikovsky ballet. But their director has disappeared with the props, leaving the actors—each of whom has the IQ of a bagel—to improvise.

What unfolds on stage is sometimes heartwarming, sometimes toe-tapping, and often funny, even for those who don't know a shekel from a shtetl.

The brainchild of local artist/producers Scott, Shannon and Stephen Guggenheim, The MeshugaNutcracker! debuted in 2003 right here in the Bay Area, and has played successful stints up and down the West Coast every holiday season since.

This year's cast of Chelmniks includes Stephen Guggenheim as the town's mayor, Susan Gundunas as his wife, Shannon Guggenheim and Jeremy Kreamer as naifish youngsters Treitel and Velvel and Benjamin Pither as the village rabbi, with Jackson Davis, Hilary Little, and Krista Wigle rounding out the troupe.

It's an odd mishmash of talent—meaty operatic voices mixed with brighter Broadway tones, and newcomers alongside veterans of MeshugaNutcrackers past—but for the most part the blend works. Lyrics are crisp even in the many pattery sequences, and the choreography is delivered with drill-team precision and apparent ease. (Pither is the standout on the latter count, not because he necessarily handles the dance steps better, but because he seems to be having so much fun with them.)

Beyond those basics, though, it's hard to figure out on which criteria The MeshugaNutcracker! ought to be judged. It's billed as a Chanukah musical, but it feels more like a musical revue—what with the thin plot, parodic lyrics, thematically linked vignettes, and Vaudevillian rhythms. It also has an educational element, with the pageant scenes explaining the history and significance of Chanukah.

This educational component is mostly successful. However, two key segments—first, the Chelmniks' micro-reenactment of the entire 8-year Maccabean Revolt and, second, a sequence explaining the show's Yiddish vocabulary—occur late in the second act but provide information and context that would have been useful much earlier. (Pro tip: There's a glossary in the back of the program. If words like "shamash" and "megillah" are Greek to you, you might peruse this before the show begins.)

The show's creators want first and foremost to entertain, as evidenced by the incessant (and sometimes creaky) jokes and the parade of irresistible melodies. Tchaikovsky's famous Nutcracker themes are all here, given new life with ingenious new lyrics.

The MeshugaNutcracker! is also delightful to look at, thanks to scenic and costume designer Julie Englebrecht. The set features a tiered stage in an old-world town square, surrounded by rustic, comically looming houses. It's a shame the houses don't get more use.

Costumes are bright and whimsical, with quilted fabrics, challah epaulets, and hats made from buckets, colanders, and flower pots.

While the village thespians dress in a style suggesting 19th-century peasants, these must be their pageant costumes, for the show is clearly set much closer to the present. Two pageant vignettes remember the Holocaust; another is set in the modern state of Israel.

If there is a single overarching problem with the production, it is a certain homogeneity. Some of the characters are so sparsely defined as to be essentially interchangeable, and the actors fail to make a clean distinction between their rehearsed pageant vignettes and the "out of character" scenes, adopting the same presentational style throughout. The line between pageant and pageant-production-panic is further blurred by the fact that some of the show's cleverest song and dance numbers occur in scenes that are supposedly spontaneous.

Will the tales in The MeshugaNutcracker! ever replace Frosty, Rudolph, and Charlie Brown's Christmas tree in the larger cultural imagination? Probably not. But if you're looking for a change of pace from the standard seasonal fare, this might be your ticket.

The MeshugaNutcracker! just completed a 10-day run in San Francisco and is heading to Campbell's Heritage Theatre for a quick South Bay run. There are plans to take the show to New York in 2015, so this may be your last chance to catch it before it hits the big time. Consider it a mitzvah.

The Meshuga Nutcracker

Dec. 25-28

Heritage Theatre

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