Annual Christmas Revels’ production fills the stage with delight
By Iris Fanger, Daily News Correspondent
CAMBRIDGE – The folks at Christmas Revels have outdone themselves with this year’s production, billed as an “Acadian-Cajun Celebration.”
The central theme of families forced from Canada to Louisiana against their will is no less current today than in the 18th century when the British expelled the French who had settled in Acadie, now known as Nova Scotia. Sadly, the explosion of populations in search of safe havens is a fact of the world we live in.At the heart of the performance is a slow, long procession by the entire cast down the diagonal of Harvard’s Sanders Theatre stage near the end of Act I. Although paced to a song of departure, “Le Depart Du Canada,” the evening is far from mournful. Under the direction of Patrick Swanson, and the music direction of Megan Henderson, the experience has been turned into a joyful medley of music, dance and singing, drawn from the richness of Acadian culture that was ultimately transformed into Cajun traditions, after the community had traveled 1,600 miles to find new homes.
David Coffin, the beloved face and voice of The Revels and the genial master-of-ceremonies, is helped by a quartet of local actors, Steve Barkheimer, Noni Lewis, Ross MacDonald and Lola May Williamson, who narrate the historic chronicle and also change character to take part in several of the scenes. You will not soon forget Barkheimer, no slouch as a musician himself, as the Elton John look-alike or MacDonald as a crazed, sword-slinging Ninja King Rex in the Mummer’s Play, re-written in a Southern accent and spiced with voodoo dolls.
Studding the show are experts in the immigrant French music who double as performers and advisors. Chief among them is the sweet-voiced Josee Vachon, born in Quebec but raised in Maine, who chants the songs, often self-accompanied by a stepping motion called Canadian foot tapping, performed either seated or standing. The movement is akin to tap dance but less conscious as a performance technique, more like talking or stamping out the beat for herself, but mesmerizing for a viewer to watch. At her side are the consummate fiddler Lisa Ornstein and musicians David Greely, Keith Murphy, Tom Pixton and Becky Tracy, as colorful and varied in their individual personalities as the syncopated rhythms from their instruments.
As always over the 45-year history of “The Christmas Revels,” the large, multi-generational cast fills the stage in wondrous choirs and ensembles. I counted nearly 100 players, musicians, singers and dancers, comprising the children’s chorus, Les Voix d’Acadie (the adults), the Cambridge Brass Ensemble, the Middlesex 4H Fife and Drum and the Pinewoods Morris Men.
The children are a special delight, in the sweetness of their voices and the natural energy of their game-playing, particularly in the tossing of a toy stuffed chicken into the audience, set to “La Poulette Grise,” an old French counting song. Members of the adult chorus charmed with their performance of several familiar-looking square dances or quadrilles, but also in the Cajun two-step couple dancing. Jeremy Barrett has designed a huge tree with deep roots as a backdrop that serves as a screen for projections to enhance the stories, and lighting designer Jeff Adelberg has provided mysterious lights and shadows to surround the ritual of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.
No worries for those of us who return year after year to Revels for the comfort of hearing the familiar music. Mixed among the many French anthems, bright fiddling and “Vive La Compagni” sing-along, old favorites welcome us into the human chain led by Coffin as the “Lord of the Dance,” and we join in the “Master of this house” blessing at the end. And, best of all, is the sense of community that spills over the edge of the stage to every one of us in the audience.