Christmas Revels Enchants with Celebration of Acadian, Cajun Cultures
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by Mike Hoban
The Christmas Revels: An Acadian-Cajun Celebration of the Winter Solstice. Directed by Patrick Swanson; Musical Direction by Megan Henderson; Set Design by Jeremy Barnett; Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg; Sound Design by Bill Winn; Costume Design by Heidi A. Hermiller; Choreography by Gillian Stewart. Presented by Revels at The Sanders Theater at Harvard University, 45 Quincy Street Cambridge, through December 27th.
As the days grow shorter and the nights become progressively chillier, it’s once again time for the “Christmas Revels”, the non-traditional holiday tradition that draws “revelers” from far beyond its Boston/Cambridge base. Founded in 1971, this is the 46th version of “Revels”, which each year presents a different culture and its traditions centered on the Winter Solstice/Christmas. In recent years we have traveled back to the Wales of Dylan Thomas’ childhood; late 19th century Victorian England (a show which included some brilliantly funny pantomime); and joined a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in 15th century Spain. This year’s production focuses on North America, beginning with the previously unsettled shores of Nova Scotia and traveling to present day Cajun country in Louisiana. This enchanting incarnation of “Revels” features music and dance from early French and Acadian cultures as well as New Orleans traditional music (including a rousing Dr. John number).
As is tradition, larger-than-life baritone David Coffin begins the Revels by prepping the audience for the half-dozen songs that they will sing along with the cast. This year’s selections include “Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes (Angels We Have Heard on High) an mid-1800s French carol; the familiar Vive La Compagni; and perennial favorite “The Lord of the Dance”, a 1963 English hymn that concludes the first act, where a pair of Morris dancers and the entire chorus from the production join hands with the audience in a serpentine dance as they make their way to the ornate lobby for intermission.
The narrative of this year’s story focuses on the settlement and displacement of French citizens who immigrated to what is now known as Nova Scotia in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. They developed their own farmland, draining the marshlands to create fertile soil, and they carved out a rich life for themselves, surviving by farming and fishing. Unfortunately, they were often caught in land disputes between French and British, and were finally banished from their new homeland by the Brits. In 1785 1,600 Acadians migrated to Louisiana via sailing ships (courtesy of the Spanish government). The story is told using narration as well as traditional song and dance from the era, and features some gorgeous choral work by the ensemble, as well as adorable performances by the children’s chorus, “Les Petits Voyageurs Children”.
The production is further elevated by the guest talent that Revels’ annually imports. According to the playbill, former Revels music director George Emlen worked closely Acadian/Cajun musicians to find the right mix of songs to bring the show to life, including Josee Vachon (who performs a number of beautiful traditional French folk songs as well as amazing the audience with her rhythmic foot tapping); fiddlers Lisa Ornstein, David Greely and Becky Tracy; accordion player Tom Pixton; and piano/guitar player Keith Murphy, who performed the evening’s most emotionally wrenching number, the heartbreaking “Le Depart Du Canada (The Leaving of Canada)”. It is also the most theatrically impactful number, with set and lighting designers Jeremy Barnett and Jeff Adelberg’s wonderful “magic tree” burning in the night while the Acadians leave their new homeland after being ordered out by the British.
The production is given a big boost by veteran Boston actors Steve Barkhimer, who plays a variety of roles including the narrator, a French military official and the aforementioned Dr. John (in an high-spirited version of “Right Place, Wrong Time”), and Ross MacDonald as a charming rogue of a British military leader as well as the Cajun “Rex” who battles the King Alligator (the imposing Coffin) in a very funny sword fight. Noni Lewis, best known as a voice actress (Wallace and Gromit), also narrates and shines in a number of comic roles.
Another great aspect of this production is the incredible venue, the Sanders Theatre. Originally designed to host Harvard commencements and lectures, the theater has been host to theater and music since 1895. It is acoustically perfect and the architecture inside and out of the 1,166 seat theatre is stunning. “Christmas Revels” is a terrific alternative entertainment for the holiday season.