WBUR REVIEW: Revels is back with a more inclusive, rebranded holiday spectacular

Reviews

12.19.2022

December 19, 2022 By Iris Fanger

Stephanie Clayman, Ewan Swanson, the Ellis Island children and the “Midwinter Revels” adult chorus. (Courtesy Paul Buckley)

Boston is blessed by a splendid variety of holiday events— the plural productions of “The Nutcracker” in all its spectacle, “A Christmas Carol” charting the redemption of Scrooge’s soul and the joys of “Black Nativity,” in contrast to the raunchy laughs from the Gold Dust Orphans. However, none create the sense of community more than Revels at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre.

For the past 51 years, Revels has presented a Christmas-time celebration of traditional song, dance and story both Christian and pagan, performed by large casts of gifted volunteers. The 2022 production differs in its inclusiveness, adding large elements of Jewish and Latin American cultures to the mix.

Now rechristened “The Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration,” the show resolutely breaks down the proverbial fourth wall between the players on stage and the audiences in their seats. Starting from the top with a music lesson directed by the genial, man-of-all-talents, David Coffin — now in his 43rd year in the “Revels” cast — the viewers rehearse the multitude of songs that stud the show, to be sung in unison or in three-part harmony along with the performers.

The Ellis Island children, with puppet design by Sara Peattie. (Courtesy Paul Buckley)

Over three hours, a large and diverse company of singers, dancers, actors and musicians (not to mention the charming array of multi-styled puppets designed by Sara Peattie), unfolds across the venerable stage of the wood-paneled theater. The volunteer cast of children and adults are joined by a small group of professional actors, headed by Carolyn Saxon as Spirit, dressed in flowing white robes.

Coffin is on stage throughout the production, seated among the lively band of musicians. When he is not singing or dancing at center stage, he plays a multitude of instruments including the recorder and a penny whistle. Leading the beloved “Lord of the Dance” Coffin leaps into the audience to extend a hand to a viewer, plucked from a seat, to lead the long procession dancing out into the lobby at intermission, and you would have found me among them this past Friday.

The 52-year history of Revels has been marked by different themes for each year, sometimes moving to lands like England or Spain, or time-traveling through eras from Queen Victoria’s reign and back to the Renaissance, or the Middle Ages, portrayed in expertly researched period song, dance and story.

Luke Olivier (center) and the “Midwinter Revels” adult chorus. (Courtesy Paul Buckley)

This year’s setting is Ellis Island, where immigrants are waiting to be admitted, on Christmas Eve, 1924. No subject can be more relevant in 2022, the story mirroring today’s headlines from around the world.

In 1924, the United States passed a law limiting annual totals of newcomers at two percent of the number of each nationality already here — Asians were excluded and not admitted into the U.S. The groups on stage are the Irish, fleeing from starvation and poverty, and a band of Russian and Ukrainian Jews, leaving home because of the pogroms, plus a cohort of German Jews. They are joined in the second act by a wave of immigrants from Mexico, arriving after its Civil War.

As if to atone for past Revels productions which were resolutely Christian in their celebration of Christmas traditions, this year’s version is filled also with Jewish and Yiddish music, a salute to Hanukkah. And the pagan tradition is not abandoned: the Great Meadows Morris & Sword company, a group of high school-age students from the Greater Boston area who perform traditional English morris and rapper sword dances, open Act II with a mysterious Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, and later, a quintet of dancers risk their lives in the crisply performed Rapper Sword Dance.


Maeve Leahy (left), Ewan Swanson (center), and dancers from Great Meadows Morris & Sword. (Courtesy Paul Buckley)

A teenage Irish girl (Maeve Leahy) and a 16 -year- old Jewish boy (Ewan Swanson) personify the problems of understanding each other’s cultures before they become friends, neighbors and soon-to-be fellow citizens. The officer in charge at Ellis Island is Mexican (Ricardo Holguin), taking command of the second act with his excellent singing voice and charismatic stage presence. He introduces a trio of women led by Rosalba Solis for a lively Mexican Hat Dance. Solis is masterful in her complex tapping footwork, the other women swishing their skirts behind her.

Artistic director, Patrick “Paddy” Swanson, now in his 34th year shaping Revels, and music director, Elijah Botkin, manage to wrestle the many parts and cultures onto the stage, even though the divergent elements do not always connect: a Christmas Eve soccer game under a white flag of truce between the World War I warring British and German soldiers is followed by a popular folk song from  England, and next a tale about “The Golem” from Yiddish tradition (recited by the storyteller Stephanie Clayman).

Yet there are unexpected links to be found, especially in the pairing of “Lord of the Dance” with the Jewish folk dance “Hava Nagilia,” as if to prove their shared humanity despite the contradictions — one of the most rewarding scenes of the evening. The other is the universal goal of peace, as Spirit remarks, “Music is a powerful thing. If you mortals could just get everybody to sing together and to keep on singing, you’d have no time for fighting.” Amen, to that.

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