REVIEW: Nearly 50, Christmas Revels is better than ever
By Iris Fanger, Correspondent
Carolyn Saxon sings with the men’s chorus in “The Christmas Revels” Photo by Roger Ide
CAMBRIDGE – For its 49th year, “The Christmas Revels: An American Celebration of the Winter Solstice” opened its 18-performance run with a roar and a holler last Friday night at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. The viewers packing the three-tier, wooden paneled hall that has been home for this holiday celebration over the decades, positively glowed with good will, damp coats and smiles all around, mirroring the faces of three generations of performers.
Nearly 90 performers took the stage, including singers, dancers, actors, and musicians from Burlington, Dorchester, Cambridge, Arlington, Lexington, Essex, Framingham, East Weymouth, Harwich Port, Newton, Mansfield, Salem, Medway and Sharon, to create a sense of community with the audience which clapped, cheered and sang out with gusto at the command of longtime Revels Renaissance Man David Coffin. Changing costumes as often as instruments (the penny-whistle and ocarina among them), Coffin transformed from genial master-of-ceremonies to serious soloist to bouncing Morris Man, inviting everyone in the audience to join the traditional chain of holding hands and capering out to the lobby for “Lord of the Dance,” the Act I finale.
Although I have marked the season each year at many evenings with “The Christmas Revels,” I cannot remember a better production than this one, timed to recall the spirit of the holiday and the traditions that unite us as a nation.
This year’s theme of Americana during the 1930s Dust Bowl years is personified by a man called Johnny Johnson who has lost his identity and knows not where to find it (the actor, Jeff Song). The know-it-all Announcer (actor, Steven Barkhimer) of an old-time radio station WCRS (that mimics the wildly popular Grand Ole Opry programs which gathered listeners around their radios on Saturday nights), advises him to hit the road – North, South, East and West – carrying his few possessions wrapped in a bundle on a stick. Other actors on stage are Bobbie Steinbach as the assertive wise woman and storyteller, and Chris Everett-Hussey who helps Johnny find his way.
Jeff Song with the Maybell Trio in “The Christmas Revels” Photo by Roger Ide
Along his journey, Johnny meets his fellow citizens, costumed in down-home clothes (by Heidi A. Hermiller), as if they were figures stepped from a photograph by Walker Evans. The choruses are given names: the Rocky River Children, the Crossroads Chorus and the Sourdough Teen Dancers, a troupe of a dozen accomplished youngsters. The Sourdough Teens perform the familiar figures of American square dances, along with some fancy clogging (choreography by Kelli Edwards), but also a precision sword dance with entwining blades that ends triumphantly in a rose assemblage held overhead at the end (instructed by Laura Swanson). The cast and musicians are woven into a mighty ensemble by director Patrick Swanson and music director Megan Henderson.
Squirrel Butter, the Seattle husband-and-wife duo of Charlie Beck and Charmaine Slaven, and multi-instrumentalists Jake Blount and Libby Weitnauer of Tui, perform the music, accompanied by bass player Matt Weiner and the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble. Slaven also sings and dances in a virtuosic display of flat-footing and clogging, straight out of the North Carolina mountains. The eclectic mix of music is drawn from Shaker worship, bluegrass classics, Appalachian folk songs and gospel. A nod to more modern times of the 20th century is added with Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” a roundelay of the best, the most beloved, but also some forgotten melodies of America.
And just when you think there’s not another wondrous surprise to be seen, gospel singer Carolyn Saxon, accompanied by Issa A. Bibbins, performs a fervent sing-out of “This Train,” followed by “Go Where I Send Thee,” danced out, verse by verse, by the rousing Sourdough Teens. At more than three hours long, some of the children in the audience were no doubt nodding off in the family cars on their way home, but certainly smiling in their sleep.