Boston Globe Review: This virtual Christmas Revels is a virtual triumph

Reviews

12.19.2020

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David Coffin leads the “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” with individual video and audio contributions edited together to give the impression of a live chorus.COURTESY OF REVELS/DIGINOVATIONS (CUSTOM CREDIT)

For the 50th anniversary of The Christmas Revels, the Revels team were undoubtedly planning something special, and though “A 50th Anniversary Virtual Celebration” won’t have been what they had in mind back in early March, before COVID-19 closed local theaters, what they’ve come up with as an online show is as special as you could ask for.

It begins with a camera panning through Harvard’s Memorial Hall and eventually arriving at an empty Sanders Theatre. Well, almost empty. You might not have noticed, but the most faithful attendees of The Christmas Revels — they’ve seen every performance — have been the statues of James Otis and Josiah Quincy that flank the Sanders stage. In the 2020 “Christmas Revels,” they’re portrayed by two legendary Boston actors, the husband-and-wife pair of Paula Plum and Richard Snee. James and Josiah are perplexed by the absence of players and audience, but soon Revels folk — director Patrick Swanson, music director George Emlen, master of ceremonies David Coffin, and performers Carolyn Saxon and Johnny Nichols Jr. — arrive and explain the pandemic situation. There’s a salute to Revels founder Jack Langstaff before they discover that a recitation of Susan Cooper’s “The Shortest Day” will allow us to see what James and Josiah remember.

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Paula Plum (left) as James Otis and Richard Snee as Josiah Quincy, the two marble statues at Sanders Theatre who have seen every “Christmas Revels” performance.COURTESY OF REVELS/DIGINOVATIONS (CUSTOM CREDIT)

What follows is a two-hour sampler of past “Christmas Revels” that spans the winter-holiday world. Excerpts from more than 80 Revels numbers are served up in chronological order, beginning with a black-and-white “First Nowell” from 1977 that’s blurry but affecting all the same. Ira Bernstein clogs up an Appalachian storm. Stan Strickland’s sax wails behind Janice Allen in the African-American carols “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” and “Go, Tell It on the Mountain.” Heron puppets fly high in the English ballad “The Hern”; storyteller Jay O’Callahan narrates “The Rom and the Rabbit.” The Revels Children are featured in “Hail to Britannia” and “King Herod and the Cock.” Maggi Peirce sings the British music hall ditty “Don’t Have Any More, Mrs. Moore”; Jayne Tankersley soars on Robert Burns’s “Ca’ the Yowes.” The dancing ranges from Mexico to Venice to Karelia to the Shetlands and includes a “Lobster Quadrille.” It’s all snippets — apart from the moving tribute to the “Underground Railroad” from 2000 — but the editing is masterful; you always get just enough.

And it’s not all archives. Saxon and Nichols join the “Underground Railroad” segment to sing “Hold On.” Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, performing in his home, provides an instrumental frame for the Revels staple “Dona nobis pacem,” which, like “Joy to the World” and “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” is sung by the Revels Virtual Chorus, their individual video and audio contributions having being edited together to give the impression of a live chorus. Swanson, Emlen, Coffin, Saxon, and Nichols appear on the Sanders Theatre stage via studio performances and the magic of green screens.

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Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs “Dona nobis pacem,” which he taped at his home in Cambridge for “The Christmas Revels 2020.”COURTESY OF REVELS/DIGINOVATIONS (CUSTOM CREDIT)

All the “Christmas Revels” favorites are here, including a mash-up of past Revels mummers’ plays; you even get to see the audience dancing out of the theater and into the Memorial Hall vestibule at the end of “Lord of the Dance.” There’s a 5 1/2-minute intermission, during which the screen shares personal notes sent to Revels and reminds you that you can purchase “The Christmas Revels Celebrates 50 Years” two-CD set — 64 tracks running close to 2 1/2 hours — with commemorative booklet at the Revels online store for $24.95. The $50 event pass, meanwhile, allows you and your household to watch the show on demand through the end of the year. Plum and Snee alone are worth that much. It’s not quite the same as being in Sanders Theatre, but this “Virtual Celebration” is the next best thing.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com

THE CHRISTMAS REVELS 2020: A 50th ANNIVERSARY VIRTUAL CELEBRATION

Written and directed by Patrick Swanson. Music direction, George Emlen. Set, Andy Barnett. Costumes, Heidi A. Hermiller. Sound, Kem Stewart. Presented by Revels through Dec. 31. $50 household. 617-972-8300

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