TAB Newspapers Theater Review: Revels transports audiences to Victorian England
By Iris Fanger
For The Patriot Ledger
Imagine watching a street scene in London at the end of the 19th century, just before Christmastime. Many of the shoppers carry boxes of all sizes, tied in red ribbons. Some of the women are dressed in colorful, long gowns covered by cloaks that sweep the cobblestone streets and bonnets on their heads. The men who escort them wear long coats and tall hats. But there are simpler folk, too, wrapped in shawls and humble jackets. Over all of them float the sounds of tradesmen calling out their wares.
Welcome to the 44th annual production of the “Christmas Revels,” this year set in England when Queen Victoria was on the throne. The amazing structure known as the Crystal Palace, built in 1851 to house the Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations in Hyde Park, London, had been moved to a different site where it housed numerous entertainments including concerts, recitals and circus troupes. Sir Arthur Sullivan, the distinguished composer, was having his greatest successes with the operettas he wrote with W.S. Gilbert, despite his numerous serious works, and George Bernard Shaw was writing music reviews. The Alhambra and Empire theaters were flourishing as music halls, filled with comic performers, animal acts, jugglers, dancers and eccentric oddities. At Christmastime the stages hosted pantomimes or “pantos,” spectacles often based on fairy tales but featuring various music hall entertainers as well. Act I of “The Christmas Revels” takes place in a holiday street market. Act II moves to the Crystal Palace for the performance of a “panto” of “Cinderella,” commissioned by the Prince of Wales, later to be crowned as Edward VII.
Weaving together familiar and beloved performers such as David Coffin, the genial master of ceremonies, and the Pinewoods Morris Men, as well as the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble, the 2014 Revels is a blissful mix of the sacred and the comically profane. The 2½-hour performance includes the annual recitation of the Susan Cooper’s poem, “The Shortest Day,” and the group-sing finale, “Susex Mummers’ Carol” (“God bless the master of this house”). And that’s not to forget the metaphor-laden “Lord of the Dance,” which transforms Coffin into a Morris dancer, to lead the singing and dancing members of the audience, clasping hands with strangers into a chain of instant friendship, out to the high ceiling lobby of Harvard University’s Memorial Hall. George Emlen, music director of the production since 1984, chose and directed the adorable children’s choir and the adults of the Royal Albert Chorus, in addition to arranging the music.
Although it’s hard to keep count, there were perhaps 75 actor-singers and musicians on stage in the Sanders Theatre, with its perfect acoustics, burnished by the wooden alcoves and hard benches of the university’s largest auditorium where the Christmas Revels holds forth every year. In Act I, two sets of buskers, or street performers, competing for attention, are played by professional actors hired for the leading roles: the versatile Billy Meleady, paired with Marge Dunn; the round-eyed, bald-headed clown, Mark Jaster and his partner, Sabrina Selma Mandell. The book for the show, written by Patrick Swanson, longtime director of the Revels, has the buskers join forces for the “panto,” a big boost to their careers – and their pocketbooks.
The plot is set in motion by David Gullette, bringing a savvy gravitas to the role of Sir Arthur Sullivan, and Walter Locke as a theatrical magnate who undertake to produce the “panto” at the Crystal Palace. Sarah deLima appears first as their socialite friend, Fanny Ronalds, who is also a famous singer. She later lets it rip in two lively music hall numbers. Jaster appears in drag as one of Cinderella’s mean sisters, another of the “panto” traditions.
This year’s Revels are as good for looking as for listening, due in part to the costume parade, devised and made by Heidi A. Hermiller and her crew. From the tiniest girls in the children’s chorus to the grown-ups, especially the music hall players, each cast member is costumed in a different but sumptuous array. Mrs. Ronalds, in a sequined and feathered peacock-like gown and hat, borrowed from a Hasty Pudding show, provides the best viewing of all.
How appropriate for the British-hued, Victoria- era production of “The Christmas Revels” to be staged in Cambridge, where the storied “Tory Row” mansions of the Revolutionary War period still stand on Brattle Street. However, these songs, gags and dances, ushering in the 2014 holiday season, cannot help but charm all comers, no matter their persuasion.