Theater Review: The Christmas Revels – A Wonderful Nordic Celebration
By David Greenham
This year’s version – the 48th! – of The Christmas Revels is delightful and refreshing way to bid adieu to a tumultuous 2018.
The Christmas Revels: a Nordic Celebration of the Winter Solstice, directed by Patrick Swanson. Music Direction by Megan Henderson, Scenic Design by Jeremy Barnett, Costume Design by Heidi A. Hermiller, Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, Sound Design by Bill Winn, Projection Designs by Garrett Herzig, Choreography by Annamarie Pluhar and Catherine E.S. Springer. Produced by Revels, Inc. at Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, MA., through December 29.
Given the lack of snow, minimal dips of cold weather, and the political train wreck (the grift that just keeps grifting), it hasn’t seemed like much of a holiday season. How fortunate, then, that Patrick Swanson, Megan Henderson, and their devoted group of artistic partners have come up with such a delightful and refreshing Christmas Revels.
This year’s version – the 48th! – is a Nordic Celebration of the Winter Solstice. The warm and always smiling David Coffin again welcomes the crowd, and before you know it the stage is filled with a beautiful array of costumed chorus members. We’re off on a journey through music and traditions of Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
This year’s Revels focuses primarily on Sven (Ewan Swanson), the only son of a wealthy Finnish family. His father (Matt Winberg) is tough and demanding. He wants his son to make a good impression on the visiting Ambassador. Sven’s mother (Noni Lewis), is warm and supportive of both father and son. Sven also benefits from the advice and support of his family maid (Sarah Morrisette), who shares an important gift, the book of the Kalevala. The epic tale of Finnish folklore sets Sven off on a dream that includes a journey with his late uncle Väino (Chris Kandra).
Wonderfully, the drama includes music from Scandinavia, performed with instruments such as the hardingfele, nyckelharpa, and kantele, along with fiddles, a base, whistles, various percussion instruments, and the horns of the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble. In addition to songleader Coffin, who plays a surprising number of instruments, the tunes feature Swedish accordionist Sunniva Brynnel, double-bassist Corey Dimario, Scandinavian music specialist Lydia Ievins, Hardanger fiddle expert Loretta Kelley, and Swedish traditional musician Andrea Larson. There are a few times when everyone stands back and clears center stage for Finnish musician Merja Soria. The San Diego-based musician and singer’s haunting voice is mesmerizes. One of the show’s highlights: when she leads off “Silent Night” with a verse in Finnish before being joined by the full company.
Two community groups are assembled for each year’s Revels. This Scandinavian version boasts a very strong pair: the Solstånd Children and The Kalevala Chorus. The children shine in “Tomtarnas Julnatt” (Christmas Night Elves). The men of the adult chorus are introduced via a fine rendition of an ancient carol from Iceland, “Ólafur Liljurós.” But it is the women’s chorus whose superbly balanced vocals fills the Sanders Theater with an almost ethereal glow. Their Danish hymn “I Denne Søtte Juletid” (In this Blessed Yuletide) is a standout.
The company extends beyond the musicians and the adult and children’s choruses. The Pinewoods Morris Men, the Briljant String Band, and Karin’s Sisters serve as subsets of the cast. Revels standards are shoehorned into Sven’s adventurous tale, including Lord of the Dance, the Dona Nobis Pacem rounds, the Papa Stour Sword Dance, and the Mummers’ Play, which this year is an appropriate send up of a Danish play by a ‘famous’ Elizabethan playwright. Ophelia (Sarah Morrisette) is particularly funny in this episode. I don’t mean to ruin the ending, but the Prince, the King, the Queen, the Dragon, and the Troll all end up dead. It’d be a tragedy — if it wasn’t so funny in this go-round.
The key members of the cast are all quite strong; each supplies their moments of joy. As he has for many years, Coffin guides the audience through the action with ease. He shows up on numerous occasions, singing, playing instruments, conducting, and ushering people around the stage. Look at him when he’s seated stage left, out of the lights, and you’ll see Coffin energetically watching and cheering the cast along. The Revels entrust him with a lot — and he delivers.
Also charming is Noni Lewis, whom I loved in the Acadian Revels a few years ago. She’s terrific as a narrator and storyteller, exuding warmth as Sven’s mom. Sarah Morrisette, Chris Kandra, and Matt Winberg all make their debuts this year — each plays their multiple roles with aplomb.
Overlooked, at least in the program, is the young actor Ewan Swanson, a Revels intern, who is at the center of the haphazard narrative that strings all the great music together. I suspect he’s been in a quite few of the Revels shows given that he’s the director’s son — he more than holds his own surrounded by professionals.
As usual, the well-organized chaos that is the Revels features lots of swift transitions and mood swings. The darkness that pops up in the second act seemed to lose some of the youngest audience members but, overall, Swanson has created a show that entertains all ages. Henderson’s music direction plays an important role here, considering that almost none of the lyrics are in English. The reliable design team contributes its showbiz savvy: Jeremy Barnett’s lovely and functional set, charming lighting design from Jeff Adelberg, Bill Winn’s smooth sound design, and Ari Herzig’s excellent projections. Best of all this year is Heidi Hermiller’s glorious costumes; they’re marvelous! Also deserving a nod are the fantastic puppets operated by Mark Ward. The giant figure that helps tell the Finnish folk tale of the creation of the world is gorgeous. The memorable moment in this scene is beautiful and quiet: Sven comes face to face with a stag in the silent frozen woods.
I fear this year’s Revels is nearly sold out, and that is understandable. This is a wonderful way to say good-bye — or in this case hyvästi — to a tumultuous 2018.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.