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Jewish Journal

Two Shows Set the Stage for Chanukah

by Robert David Jaffee

December 15, 2005 | 7:00 pm

Two winters ago, in one of its traditional Victorian teas, A Noise Within (ANW), the classical repertory theater company in Glendale, staged a series of holiday readings from actors as varied as Ed Asner and Fred Savage. One of ANW's own troupe members, Len Lesser, in his inimitable New York accent, read a Chanukah story about a boy in the Bronx who, if memory permits, floats in the Big Apple firmament, going on a magical Chagallesque voyage through the city night.

Even if all of the other stories were about Christmas, this one Jewish tale stood out, if only because it was so unique, so rare, in a Thanksgiving-to-New Year's climate in which Jews and other non-Christians are bombarded with Christian iconography, animated TV specials, carols and merchandise.

If it's OK for storekeepers to say "Merry Christmas," as Kinky Friedman contends, then it is also OK for theatergoers to get a taste of Jewish entertainment in the midst of all the "Christmas Carol" and "Nutcracker" productions.

Guggenheim Entertainment and the National Jewish Theatre Festival have adapted Tchaikovsky's ballet into a Chanukah-themed musical, "The Meshuga Nutcracker!" Shannon Guggenheim, one of the creators of the show, disputes the misconception by some that "if it's a Chanukah show, it must hate Christmas"; this show's edgiest moment comes in a good-natured opening song with a couplet about "Santa having the last laugh, this holiday lasts a month and a half."

Although Tchaikovsky composed the music, many of the big, splashy numbers owe more to Andrew Lloyd Webber than the 19th century romantic giant. It's not the music alone that's changed; the story has, too. Now, instead of the songs being about sugar plum fairies, rat kings and nutcrackers, they are about menorahs, dreidels and Judah Maccabee. More broadly, Guggenheim says, "it's about finding the soul in our lives."

"The Meshuga Nutcracker!" features eight principal characters, symbolizing the eight days of Chanukah, who must wait for the "director" to show up, so that they can light the menorah. While the "director" sounds like Elijah or Godot, Guggenheim says that the character and plot device derive from the movie "Waiting for Guffman," not the Torah or Samuel Beckett.

Dancing and singing in front of a giant dreidel, the performers, inhabitants of a mythical shtetl, wear garb almost as colorful as that of the Technicolor Joseph, and the stage floor in its multihued mosaic resembles a Wolfgang Puck eatery.

This is kid-friendly theater, which is not surprising since Guggenheim, along with her husband, Scott, and brother-in-law, Stephen, conceptualized the show around the time her 3-year-old daughter was born.

"Where are we going to take a child?" she used to ask herself, given the historic lack of Jewish holiday theater.

Coming to Los Angeles for the first time after two years of exclusive dates in the Bay Area, the show has yet to penetrate "the public-school sector," although that is the next step, says Guggenheim, who views her role as being that of an educator. If she succeeds, "The Meshuga Scrooge" may be next.

"The Meshuga Nutcracker!" opens Thursday, Dec. 22, at the Westside JCC, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. Plays Through Jan. 1. 7:30 p.m. (Tues.-Thurs., Sat.); 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. (Sun.). $18-$36. The Jewish Journal sponsors the Sunday, Dec. 25, 1 p.m. show. For tickets, call (877) 456-4849.

Tchaikovsky has always transcended religion and ethnicity, so it's not surprising that Zinovy Goro, a Ukrainian Jew, studied clarinet and composition at the State Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Kiev. Goro, along with Miamon Miller, who plays violin and mandolin, form a klezmer orchestra in Theater 40's premiere of "Simcha," another Jewish-themed play being staged during the holidays. From an elevated platform, they perform their admixture of plaintive yet heartening Jewish folk tunes before the actors arrive onstage, during intermission, and at pivotal narrative points.

Subtitled "An Evening of Jewish folklore," "Simcha," like "Meshuga Nutcracker," is set in the shtetl, that fabled, liminal land in the Pale that captured the imagination of artists like Sholom Aleichem and Chagall. Indeed, "Simcha," an original production written by Ross Pavis and Howard Teichman, bears the influence of both of these Russian-Jewish luminaries.

With a setup so classic that it has been used by everyone from Chaucer to Eugene O'Neill to William Inge, the play begins when a drifter named Simcha, part troubadour, part hobo, pleads his way into an inn. Though he has no groshen to pay for bread, he convinces the denizens of the inn that he can recompense them with a story. Make that three stories.

Despite his tatterdemalion rags and scruffy stubble, Simcha carries the promise of dream to these miserable inn dwellers, and is soon distributing copies of a script to each of them -- the young boy and girl, in the bloom of love; the old man and woman, ignored by all; the termagant who runs the inn, and the meek owner who submits to her will.

They may seem like stock characters, but, as portrayed by Theater 40's fine cast, they have the timelessness of archetypes. Maybe, it's because all of these actors have great faces, in the way that John Garfield and Edward G. Robinson had great faces, etched with character and depth. None of the actors would be considered conventionally attractive; even the ravishing young girl, played by Karla Menjivar, possesses more of the exoticism of an Old World Jewess than the glamour of a runway model. But their faces tell of their suffering and longing for a new life.

Twirling about the stage like a dreidel, while the klezmer musicians play, Simcha looks upward as if picturing the magical skyscape of Chagall. And he weaves tales not unlike those of Aleichem, rife with matchmakers and Kabbalistic potions.

Teichman, a heavyset, bearded man who resembles Jon Lovitz, shines in the title part, narrating and directing the characters in the play within the play, a role that must come easily for him, given that he is also credited as director of the play itself. When each tale ends and he is asked questions about the story's characters, he issues the caveat that he is "just a storyteller, not a philosopher."

If there is any criticism of the play, it is its length. Holiday entertainment needs to be light, and this production would have been more effective as a one-act.

"Simcha" plays 8 p.m. (Thurs.-Sat.); 2 p.m. (Sun.), thru Dec. 18, at the Reuben Cordova Theater, Beverly Hills High School, 241 Moreno Drive, (310) 364-0535.

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