Music Review: A Festive “Christmas Revels” Filled with Irish Wisdom and Humor

The merry mood, welcoming performances, and cultural richness of this year’s Irish “Christmas Revels” make it the perfect family event.

The Christmas Revels: An Irish Celebration of the Winter Solstice. Directed by Patrick Swanson. Music Direction by George Emlen. At Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, through December 27.

By Melanie O’Neill

Legendary piper Paddy Keenan, harpist Maeve Gilchrist and fiddler Sheila Fall Keohane performing in THE CHRISTMAS REVELS. Photo: Roger Ide

This year’s Irish-themed Christmas Revels takes audiences on a festive and heartwarming journey. The rich Irish vocal tradition is filled with yuletide gems, but what made this year’s Revels more than mere (if superb) caroling was the energetic, festively interactive make-up of the show.

The broad story line of an Irish ship taking immigrants on their way to New York City proffers the opportunity to feature some endearing and characteristically good-humored Irish characters. The able Wild Geese Chorus serves as the ship’s passengers: its modulated harmonies brought a natural warmth to each tune. The group’s tone infused the carols with sincerity, though its pronunciation, at times, lacked the accents and cadence of authentic Irish speech.

As the sarcastic poet aboard the ship, Billy Meleady, a Dublin native, quickly restored the necessary linguistic authenticity. He was witty when called for, particularly his comic recitation of “Soul Cages,” a tale based in Irish folklore. Steven Barkhimer, clad in shimmering, aquamarine sailor’s clothes with protruding fins, played the bizarre half-fish, half-man Coomara. Add a troupe of Irish dancing lobsters and Meleady’s frantic running (and backstroking) across stage, and you have a laught-out-loud delight. Yet the farce did not overwhelm the more serious message: Meleady delivered his lines of poetry, such as Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” with apposite profundity.

The Rattling Brogues, equipped with such traditional Irish instruments as fiddle, harp, pennywhistle, and uilleann pipes (among others), evoked the traditional Irish sound. The band both accompanies the action and, on several occasions, took center stage with virtuosic panache. Paddy Keenan on the uilleann pipes and Sheila Falls Keohane on the fiddle show enormous versatility, their arsenal ranging from sweet, lyrical tunes to fierce, upbeat jigs that has everyone in the hall stomping along.

The rhythmic vigor of the Irish step dance added yet another dimension to the Rattling Brogues’ rustic sound. The charming, young dancers that make up the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance riveted audiences with their elegance and precision.

The atmosphere of the evening was suffused with good cheer. Whole-hearted audience participation can be a difficult thing for a production to achieve, but David Coffin walked the audience through the program with a dexterity that succeeded in eliciting a full sound from spectators when necessary. Audience members became happy participants in such fun favorites as “The Rocky Road to Dublin,” “The Lord of the Dance,” and “Deck the Hall.” The three-part round of “Dona Nobis Pacem” yielded particularly impressive results; the round stayed in time and resounded vibrantly throughout the hall.

The Lobster Quadrille at this year’s CHRISTMAS REVELS. Photo: Roger Ide.

The stirring tale of a fearless people who not only persevere through tough times but remain jovial through trials and tribulations lies at the heart of this year’s merry celebrations. The show evokes the melancholy and the hope that comes with leaving your homeland and heading decisively into the unfamiliar. The standouts include the intimate vocal quartet “Bánchnoic Éireann Ó” (The Fair Hills of Ireland O) and the subdued choral hymn “Hymn for a New Land.” These laments were leavened with the tender phrasings of the singers and instrumentalists that added nuanced inflections of optimism.

The merry mood, welcoming performances, and cultural richness of this year’s Irish Christmas Revels make it the perfect family event – there’s something here for lovers of music, dance, comedy, and inspiration.

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