New England Theater Mirror: Christmas Revels Returns to Sanders Theater
By Mike Hoban
‘The Christmas Revels: In Celebration of the Winter Solstice’ – Directed by Patrick Swanson; Musical Direction by George Emlen, Edmar Colon, Associate Music Director; Set Design by Jeremy Barnett; Sound Design by Bill Winn; Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg; Choreography by Kelli Edwards, Gillian Stewart, Tony Tucker; Costume Design by Heidi A. Hermiller; Projection Designer, Ari Herzig; Presented by Revels at The Sanders Theatre at Harvard University, 45 Quincy Street, Cambridge, through December 23rd (run cut short by COVID concerns)
Following a year when the Christmas Revels celebrated its 50th anniversary with a virtual performance made up mostly of taped snippets from the previous 49 years of shows, the Celebration of the Winter Solstice returns live once again to the magnificent Sanders Theatre with its truly traditional holiday-themed fare. And while previous editions have taken us back in time to various locales of the northern hemisphere to celebrate traditions around the Winter Solstice (the shortest day), this year’s performance is set in a present-day English pub, where the patrons gather to sing traditional English village carols, led by pub owners Rita (Revels veteran Carolyn Saxon) and her partner (William Forchion). The pub is visited by time travelers from the Elizabethan era (or a Renaissance fair), who threaten to revoke the Christmas Revels charter for their failure to comply with some vague rules of conduct. It’s an interesting set up to a show that offers a number of creative twists to the standard programming.
The lingering effects of the pandemic are still in evidence, however, as audience members (thankfully) need to show proof of vaccination and remain masked at all times – even when joining in on the many audience participation numbers. There is also no intermission, so the time-honored “Lord of the Dance” procession by the audience serpentine into the magnificent outdoor lobby of the theater at the end of the first act has been shelved, with audience members instead joining pinky fingers as a show of solidarity in the Yuletide season.
But those who come to the Revels as an annual ritual (which is a substantial portion of the audience) will not be disappointed. Many of the show’s favorite musical singalong pieces, including “Dona Nobis Pacem” and the aforementioned “Lord of the Dance” remain in the show, along with a performance by a pair of Morris Dancers. Sadly, the “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” – a mystical ritual performed by stags in the woods that adds an eerie pagan feel to the production – has been cut. The children’s chorus has also been removed from the theater, but instead is simulcast live from the Revels’ Watertown rehearsal space to a big screen, where they perform traditional wassails as well as a killer version of “Someday at Christmas”, which was first popularized by Stevie Wonder.
What sets the show apart from most of the older editions of Revels, however, is the seamless integration of a more diverse cast coupled with musical selections that have a broader appeal than past performances. So in addition to the traditional offerings such as “All Come All Ye Faithful” and “Merry Christmas (performed by the Pub Carol Choristers, accompanied by the uncharacteristically jazzy Pickled Eggs House Band), and 16th and 17th-century songs performed by baritone and ringmaster David Coffin and madrigal group The Echoes, we get Carolyn Saxon’s soulful rendition of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” and the full cast doing “Oh Happy Day”, again led by Saxon.
More telling was the Mummers’ Play, another annual tradition, which usually incorporates a battle between Saint George and his fearsome foe, the dragon. This year, the showdown features an insult battle between the dragon (as voiced by Forchion) and St. George (Mark Jaster). Although the program notes that these “insult battles” date back to the 6th Century “Beowulf” poem and are found in cultures throughout the world, it more closely resembles a 90’s “Yo Momma” rap insult match. While the premise may sound potentially cringe-worthy, the sketch is actually one of the highlights of the evening, as Forchion delivers his put-downs in hip-hop style while a seemingly over-matched Jaster more than holds his own responding in the Queen’s English, eventually slaying his nemesis. It’s an imaginative juxtaposition, and the insults (written by Regie Gibson, who was terrific as the emcee/referee) are enormously clever. But it’s the music, performed by the terrific choral singers in the sublime acoustical setting of the Sanders Theater, that makes the Revels the Revels, and this year’s program delivers the goods for those that make this an annual rite. For information and tickets, go to: https://revels.org/event/the-christmas-revels-in-celebration-of-the-winter-solstice/