REVIEW: This Christmas Revels goes to the American heartland
By Jeffrey Gantz Globe Correspondent,Updated December 14, 2019, 3:02 p.m.
From left, Bobbie Steinbach, Chris Everett-Hussey, Steven Barkhimer, Darren Buck, and (on the floor) Jeff Song in “The Christmas Revels” at Sanders Theatre.ROGER IDE
CAMBRIDGE — Every decade or so, “The Christmas Revels” returns to its American roots, as if to remind us that, as entrancing as holiday globetrotting can be, there’s still no place like home. For the 2019 “Christmas Revels,” however, home is not a cozy New England hearth with snow falling outside. It’s the Depression/Dust Bowl America of the 1930s, with, as Revels artistic director Patrick Swanson notes in his program introduction, “a country in turmoil.”
The year, to be specific, is 1933, and we’re in the studio of radio station WCRS, somewhere in the American heartland, listening to a program called “American Crossroads” whose host (Steven Barkhimer) promises us “true tales of folks like you and me.” Unlike National Public Radio, WCRS (the call letters suggest “Crossroads” but also “Christmas Revels”) has conventional commercial segments, with a trio of ladies to sing the jingles, but even as we’re being invited to try Brother Theodore’s Carbolic Rectitude (it comes in a bottle), a “true tale” is unfolding in the person of Johnny Johnson (Jeff Song), who arrives at the studio with no memory of who he is or where he’s been, and no direction. The host gives Johnny a compass in exchange for a watch, and Johnny is off in search of both his identity and America’s.
His travels take him to a Shaker community (where he picks up a rake and learns “Hands to work, hearts to God”), to Appalachia, and to the Deep South. Everywhere he goes, he meets what seems to be the same mystery woman (Chris Everett-Hussey); she’ll turn up at the end as a key to who he is. And everywhere he goes, there is, of course, music and dancing. Haley Fisher solos on the Shaker tune “Pretty Home” (which Deborah Rentz-Moore sang in the Boston Camerata’s “Free America!” at Faneuil Hall last month). The Shaker Dancers mesmerize; the Crossroads Chorus glories in the searing harmonies of shape-note hymns.
Appalachia brings the coal mines of “Dark as a Dungeon,” Bobbie Steinbach retelling Kentucky folk musician Jean Ritchie’s “The Christmas Tree,” and toe-tapping banjo and fiddle tunes from Squirrel Butter (Charlie Beck and Charmaine Slaven) and Tui (Jake Blount and Libby Weitnauer). Charismatic master of ceremonies David Coffin, celebrating his 40th “Christmas Revels,” solos fervently on “I’ll Fly Away” and “Wayfaring Stranger.” As we move south, Carolyn Saxon shows up to give powerful renditions of “This Train (Is Bound for Glory)” and “My Lord’s Been Writing,” then teams with the Revels kids for “Little Johnnie Brown” and “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.”
Carolyn Saxon in “The Christmas Revels” at Sanders Theatre.ROGER IDE
The kids have always been integral to “The Christmas Revels,” but this year they really stand out. The Rocky River Children ham it up in “Old Grandma Hobble-Gobble” (with Steinbach) and “Little Johnnie Brown” before turning serious in the “Carol of the Beasts” and “Simple Gifts.” The Sourdough Teen Dancers clog up a storm in the “Kentucky Running Set” and, with Saxon rocking the house, leapfrog indefatigably through “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Yet they still have energy enough for the Appalachian-inspired longsword dance that’s part of the traditional Mummers’ Play of death and rebirth.
At the end, Johnny returns to the WCRS studio, where he becomes the guest on “This Is Your Life” and learns who he is. Yet he’s discovered his true identity as an American in the course of his travels among honest, kind, hard-working folks who love to sing and dance. Toward the conclusion of this generous, three-hour-plus show, the audience gets to join in on the Woody Guthrie anthem “This Land Is Your Land.” The 2019 “Christmas Revels” isn’t just set in the American heartland, it comes from the American heart.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org