New England Theater Mirror REVIEW: ‘Midwinter Revels’ Brings Together Multiple Cultures for an Eclectic Holiday Experience

Reviews

12.21.2022

December 18, 2022 By Mike Hoban

Carolyn Saxon, Maeve Leahy, and Evan Swanson in Revels’ Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration‘ 
Photos by Paul Buckley

‘Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration’ – Directed by Patrick Swanson; Musical Direction by Elijah Botkin; Set Design by Jeremy Barnett; Costume Design by Heidi Hermiller; Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg; Choreography by Kelli Edwards; Projection Design by Ari Herzig; Sound Design by Bill Winn; Puppet Design by Sara Peattie. Presented by Revels at the Sanders Theater at Harvard University through December 28.

As the holiday-themed shows descend upon the stages of Boston theaters, it’s not likely that you’re going to find many that feature “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, “Hava Nagila” and the traditional Mexican folk song “La Malagueña” all in the same production. But you will find all of these selections and plenty more to warm your heart in this non-traditional holiday institution, Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration. The name change from Christmas Revels for the show – it’s the 52nd annual – is meant to more accurately reflect the seasonal celebration that draws on Irish, Mexican and Jewish cultures, according to director Patrick “Paddy” Swanson.

Stephanie Clayman, Ewan Swanson, the Ellis Island children and the “Midwinter Revels” adult chorus. (Courtesy Paul Buckley)

Now rechristened “The Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration,” the show resolutely breaks down the proverbial fourth wall between the players on stage and the audiences in their seats. Starting from the top with a music lAs the show begins, it’s Christmas Eve, 1924 on Ellis Island and families of Eastern European Jews and Irish migrants are eagerly awaiting entry into their new country, but a newly passed law that severely limits immigration has ground the process to a halt. All are dismayed by the waiting, but none more than a tween Irish girl (Maeve Leahy) who laments that it’s not fair that she has to celebrate Christmas in such a dismal place. The immigrants are being screened by a Mexican doctor and nurse, which sets the stage for the audience to learn more (and enjoy) the music and stories of the three diverse cultures. Holding it all together and providing the narrative is Boston favorite Carolyn Saxon (returning from last year’s production) as the Immortal Spirit,  and baritone David Coffin, the 40-plus year veteran of Revels shows, serves as Master of Ceremonies.

Following a series of Irish folk and children’s songs interspersed with a Jewish hymn (“Ravel’s Kaddish”), we are treated to the first holiday-themed songs of the evening, the Christmas standard “Angels We Have Heard on High” – led by Coffin and sung magnificently by the entire cast and audience – and “Khanike Oy Khanike” a playful children’s tune celebrating Chanukah, as well a pair of children’s tunes, “Oyfn Pripetshik” and “Hob Ich Mir a Kleynem Michalke”.

Luke Olivier (center) and the “Midwinter Revels” adult chorus. (Courtesy Paul Buckley)

Over three hours, a large and diverse company of singers, dancers, actors and musicians (not to mention the

The Irish girl is still dismayed about being denied a “proper” Christmas, but a talk with her father puts things in perspective for her, as he introduces the first of the three musical stories interwoven into the production, “Christmas in the Trenches”, which recounts the true story of the German and Allied WWI soldiers stationed on the frontlines, who declare an informal ceasefire to celebrate Christmas in 1914. The men put down their weapons, broke bread and drank, staged a soccer match, and of course, sang traditional carols, including “O Tannenbaum”, “Es Ist Ein Ros’ Entsprungen” and “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) as well as British popular songs including “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “The Wild Rover”.

The lass also makes a new friend, a teenaged Jewish boy (Ewan Swanson), who repairs her violin and explains to her why Christmas is not a time of joy for the Jewish immigrants, due to the persecution his people have endured during the Christmas season. This sets up the second of the tales, “The Golem” a Jewish folk tale about unintended consequences that inspired Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, and concludes with “Shalom Chaverim” a traditional Jewish peace round. The third of the musical stories is presented by Boston actor Ricardo “Ricky” Holguin (who plays the Mexican doctor) which keys on the story of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, a group of Irish immigrants that deserted the American army to side with the Mexicans in the Mexican-American war. Holguin sings both traditional Mexican songs as well as pieces composed by Ry Cooder and the Irish band the Chieftains beautifully, as he relates the account of the bond between the Irish and Mexicans.

The Ellis Island children, with puppet design by Sara Peattie. (Courtesy Paul Buckley)

For Revels regulars, there’s plenty of what they’ve come to expect and rejoice in over the years, including a singalong of “Dona Nobis Pacem” and  “The Lord of the Dance” – the 1963 English hymn written by Sydney Carter that closes out the first act, where the entire cast leaves the stage and joins hands with the audience in a serpentine dance that leads to the lobby for intermission. This production is a little more low key than some of the previous Revels I’ve seen over the last decade, but still a good take for lovers of folk and traditional music presented in a non-traditional way. “Welcome Yule!” For more info, go to: http://www.revels.org/

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