In classic Revels style, the unexpected mix of talents results in a wonderful mash-up of comic schtick and classical performance.
The Christmas Revels: A Victorian Celebration of the Winter Solstice. Directed by Patrick Swanson. Musical direction by George Emlen. At Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, MA, through Dec. 28.
By Terry Byrne
Longtime Revels master of ceremonies David Coffin greets audience members at the Sanders Theatre like the old friends they are at this celebration of seasonal song and dance. For many, The Christmas Revels, this year titled “A Victorian Celebration of the Winter Solstice,” has become an annual tradition and at the performance I attended, less than one-third of the audience raised their hands when Coffin asked how many people were new to the show.
That feeling of familiarity and community is central to the charm of the Revels, which has, for 44 years now, brought together professionals and volunteers – including a chorus of more than three dozen children and adults — for a theatrical event that encourages audience participation in the best possible sense. From singing rounds of “Row the Boat, Whittington” and “Dona Nobis Pacem” to the collective dance out into the lobby to the tune of “The Lord of the Dance,” The Christmas Revels offers a wonderful reminder of the communal spirit of the season.
Coffin, who has performed with The Revels since 1980, serves as a gentle guide to the proceedings, leading the audience in community singing, joining the Pinewoods Morris Men for the “Morris Dance,” and then stepping out of the way for the theatrical section of the show, which offers an old-time English musical hall version of Christmas set in London’s legendary Crystal Palace. The first act is made up of a selection of traditional tunes and dances that showcase the talent and enthusiasm of the company, including the Cheapside Children singing the chimney sweep song “I’ll Be Up Your Way Next Week,” a medley of 17th and 18th century children’s songs and games, a “Marshfield Paper Boys Play,” featuring some wildly costumed heroes, and a lush full chorus performance of “He That Shall Endure to the End,” from Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah.
The second act shifts from general songs to a storyline specifically tailored to the Victorian Celebration theme. Director Patrick Swanson crafts a frame around the music and dance that is inspired by a chance streetcorner meeting between old school chums (David Gullette and Walter Locke), one of whom is the manager of the Crystal Palace, the other is married to a former music hall star (Sara deLima). Before you can shout “Welcome, Yule!” the producer needs a last-minute substitute for an act that has cancelled: the former music hall star and two pairs of talented buskers (Marge Dunn and Billy Meleady and Mark Jaster and Sabrina Selma Mandell) are enlisted to save the day.
In classic Revels style, the unexpected mix of talents results in a wonderful mash-up of comic schtick and classical performance. The act opens with “Hail to Britannia!,” a tribute to Prince Albert and two of his children who are attending the show (in the form of a lifesize cutout). Coffin sings Arthur Sullivan’s “Christmas Bells at Sea,” “Away in a Manger,” and does the annual reading of Susan Cooper’s 1977 poem “The Shortest Day.” Within the “story” frame, deLima does a terrific job creating the feel of a music hall performer: she not only sings a clever song (“Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way”) beautifully, but plays to the audience nimbly, pulling them right into the fun of singing along with the chorus of “Down at the Old Bull and Bush.”
The buskers get to perform some funny slapstick in a “Cinderella” panto, which is perfectly appealing for the younger audience members.
By the time we reach the “Sussex Mummers’ Carol” at the end of the show, even the most cynical audience member will find it impossible not to sing along.
Terry Byrne has been writing about the arts for nearly two decades. She has an MFA in Playwriting from Boston University and is a Resident Scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.