BWW Review: THE CHRISTMAS REVELS: A Long Tradition of Community Forged Through Music
From what I can tell, The Christmas Revels is one of those much-loved traditions that people look forward to revisiting year after year, like a performance of The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol, or taking the kids to see Santa Claus. However, unlike those other holiday seasonal shows, the Revels is billed as a celebration of the winter solstice, and it not only allows, but encourages (requires?) the audience to participate in a number of singalongs throughout the program. This year marks the 49th annual Revels, but it was my first experience, which caused me to wonder what took me so long. Each year features a different cultural theme and this year’s journey takes us back to the 1930s, to Dust Bowl-era America.David Coffin is a gregarious, folksy Master of Ceremonies and a stalwart member of the cast, stepping up for his 40th appearance with the Revels. For a newbie like me, his opening remarks and overview of the program served the dual purpose of orientation and open-armed welcome to the community. Truly, that’s what it feels like to sit in the rotunda that is Sanders Theatre, where there is no such thing as a bad seat, amongst the one thousand or so Revels aficionados. It’s a cross between A Prairie Home Companion and Woodstock, populated by people of all ages, whose commonality is their appreciation of the music, musicians, singers, actors, and dancers of a variety of stripes.
The stage is set (designer Jeremy Barnett) to evoke a small-town radio station, with a makeshift broadcast booth framed by a proscenium arch lined with light bulbs, and a neon sign with the call letters WCRS atop an adjacent erector set-like tower. The Radio Man (Steve Barkhimer) is our guide for the trip back in time, introducing the musical acts, telling some stories, and connecting with Johnny Johnson (Jeff Song), an Everyman who seems to have lost his way, as well as his memory. As Johnny searches for a direction and a purpose, with the gentle counsel of Radio Man to nudge him along, the skits and songs open up the world to him and help him to find human connection, even love for a time (Chris Everett-Hussey). Valuable as the theme and lessons of the story are, what matters most in the Revels is the catalogue of music and eclectic musical styles that propel the program, performed by dozens of (mostly) volunteers and talented artists.The exploration of the roots of American music covers a wide geographic swath, from Appalachia to California, from New England to the South. There’s bluegrass, Shaker hymns, gospel, carols, ballads, folk songs, and too many genres to mention. The musicians are topnotch: Coffin, Squirrel Butter (Charlie Beck and Charmaine Li-lei Slaven), Tui, Issa A. Bibbins, Jake Blount, Matt Weiner, Libby Weitnauer, and the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble. Carolyn Saxon slays with her vocals, fronting the WCRS Band. The Crossroads Chorus, the Rocky River Children, and Pinewoods Morris Men provide great choral sounds, and the Sourdough Teen Dancers are a dozen very impressive and energetic young people who perform with confidence and are a joy to watch.
The show runs just under three hours, including an intermission, but the crowd (even the youngsters) never wilts. In fact, they are just as lively and engaged for the traditional audience participation finale, “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” as they have been throughout the program. The entire company joins together, accompanied by the Brass Ensemble, festive snow falls down on the stage, and the songs, dances, and stories of the 49th Christmas Revels conclude with the glorious sound of a communal chorus.