Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I’m a big fan of Revels and their annual Christmas Revels performances at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge. I was excited and honored to attend the dress rehearsal performance of this year’s 40th anniversary production of the Christmas Revels on Thursday, December 16th. Had I better journalistic standards I would have used this scoop to get my review up before the show opened on Friday night, but at least at this point there are still eleven more shows to go.
This year’s Christmas Revels returns to a familiar setting, Haddon Hall, an English manor house that was the scene of the first and many subsequent Revels performances. This time the show is set in the 1920s and the 10th Duke of Rutland with his wife and children are making one last visit to the long abandoned house before it is demolished to make way for a motorway. I never before realized that Haddon Hall is a real place and the characters in these Revels are based upon real people who in fact saved and renovated Haddon Hall in the 1920s. The story told in the Revels performance of course is a beautiful fiction but one that contains deeper moral truths about family, ritual, and place.
In the performance, the spirits of the Duke of Rutland’s ancestors emerge from the walls to celebrate the solstice. This gives the chorus and instrumentalists the very enjoyable opportunity to perform music and stories from various eras – medieval, Renaissance, and Victorian – a Revels’ clip-show of sorts. While building on the historic traditions of England, the show also builds on Revels traditions of the past 40 years. Sanders Theatre is very much our Haddon Hall for the families and friends of the Revels who come each year.
I’ll try not to give too much away, but here are some of the highlights of the show (don’t read if you want to be completely surprised):
- The emergence of the spirits in white shrouds to the “Cries of London” is eerie and creepy in a beautiful way. When the chorus makes it on stage and remove the shrouds so that there costumes are visible for the first time is a big wow moment for me.
- The children’s chorus is excellent as always and seem to be more integrated into performing with the adult chorus, especially on the lovely piece “On Christmas Night.”
- All the actors put in a great performance, particularly Tim Sawyer as the Duke and Emma Jaster as a mute jester.
- Harriet Bridges plays the Duchess and also provides a soaring soprano for pieces like “Down in Yon Forest.”
- The traditional mummers play of St. George in the Dragon is always entertaining and the brand new dragon (part costume/part puppetry) really steals the show.
- A sing-a-long of “Let’s All Go Down the Strand” is joyful and exuberant, and as David Coffin noted they really do make it fit into the show.
- The real showstopper for me is the chorus’ performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s “There Shall A Star From Jacob Come Forth.” The intertwining of voices and the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble is breathtaking.
I’ll be returning to Sanders Theatre on December 26th to catch a Revels’ matinée with my wife, son, and mother. In the meantime, if you live anywhere near Cambridge and want to celebrate the holidays, go see this show!
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