Review: Christmas Revels Brings Its Special Cheer to Depression Era America
by Mike Hoban
The snow fell early in Cambridge this year, reminding folks that the holiday season is indeed upon us and it’s once again time for the Christmas Revels, the non-traditional holiday family tradition that brings back folks from far and wide, year after year. Founded in 1971, this is the 49th version of Revels, which each year presents a different culture and its traditions centered on the Winter Solstice/Christmas. For this year’s setting, the Revels returns stateside for the first time in recent memory (although the show did touch down in Louisiana in 2016’s Acadian-Cajun version), transporting us back to Depression Era America in 1933.
Bolstered by the talents of some top notch Boston acting and musical theater talent (Steven Barkhimer, Chris Everett-Hussey, Carolyn Saxon, Jeff Song and Bobbie Steinbach), as well as traditional music duos Squirrel Butter (Charlie Beck & Charmaine Slaven) and Tui (Jake Blount and Libby Weitnauer), this Revels iteration combines bluegrass, blues, gospel and traditional songs and weaves them into a story of loss and redemption. The result is an entertaining evening unlike any other holiday show, one that incorporates large doses of enthusiastic singalongs from a faithful audience that knows they are an integral part of any show.
Jeff Song with the Maybelle Trio
Following the traditional singalong instructions to the crowd by stalwart Revels ringleader and baritone extraordinaire David Coffin (celebrating his 40th year with the production), we find ourselves at the studio of WCRS, where a program called “American Crossroads” is airing. We’re told the show “is about finding the light during hard times” and it tells the tale of Johnny Johnson (Jeff Song), an aimless wanderer who can’t remember anything about his past. He meets a mystical stranger (Barkhimer, who doubles as the radio program’s host) who trades him a compass for his pocket watch, and he sets out on a journey to find himself. Along the way he learns life lessons as he makes both good and bad choices, but he keeps running into a variation of the same woman (Everett-Hussey) whom he feels connected to but doesn’t know why. When he tells her he’s trying to remember his past, she tells him, “Just keep your eyes on the road ahead.”
The show is full of inspirational quotes that give it a hopeful holiday feel, and I especially liked this Woody Guthrie-esque gem by the mystical stranger to Johnny, “Sometimes you’ll find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes in the middle of nowhere you’ll find yourself”. There are also a number of good comic bits in the narrative, usually with Boston veteran Steinbach at the center (her routine with young player Gabriella Zaino as ‘Old Grandma Hobble Gobble’ was a standout), but it’s the music that usually takes center stage at Revels each year, and this year’s eclectic offerings featured some terrific performances by guest performers and the Revels company, including the kids.
Carolyn Saxon, Men’s Chorus
Boston musical theater pro Carolyn Saxon rocked the house with blues and gospel tunes, including killer versions of “This Train” and “My Lord’s Been Writing” as well as a rave-up of “Children Go Where I Send Thee”, accompanied by the Sourdough Teen Dancers and the Rocky River Children. There was also a heapin’ helpin’ of bluegrass and banjo-based blues by Squirrel Butter and Tui – which was a lot funkier than it sounds – with one number, “Reuben’s Train”, featuring some fairly brilliant clog/tap dance accompaniment by Charmaine Slaven, which is sure to excite even those who don’t normally like bluegrass, and “Shake Sugaree” by Tui was beautifully simple and soulful. But it wouldn’t be the Revels without David Coffin (who also was a standout during his solo work) leading the audience through their paces with both bands, the cast and orchestra on selections like Albert Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away” and of course the first act-ending, “Lord of the Dance” where the audience heads for the lobby in a serpentine dance for intermission.
Revels is a unique holiday tradition and really should be experienced, especially within the gorgeous confines of the architecturally stunning and acoustically perfect Sanders Theater.