Performance Review: The Christmas Revels: An American Celebration of the Winter Solstice


The Christmas Revels: An American Celebration of the Winter Solstice
December 26, 2019 at 3 pm
Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, MA

Each year the Christmas Revels adopts the music, dance, and storytelling traditions of a different world culture (in addition to some annual Revels traditions). Every so often that theme comes home and focuses on American cultures.  If you’ve been reading my Revels reviews for a while, you’ll remember that I participated in the Revels chorus in 2009 when it had an American theme. Ten years later, I’m fascinated to see another Americana performance from the audience.

I’ve long had an idea for a Revels performance set on the stoops of a row of tenements in an American city in the 1920s/30s. Immigrants from various parts of the world (Ireland, Germany, Italy, Eastern Europe, China, etc.) and African American migrants from the South could come together and share their cultural songs, stories, and traditions of the winter season. 

This performance isn’t quite my imagined Revels, but it does come close! Set during the Dust Bowl/Depression era, a radio station host (Steven Barkhimer) offers guidance to a man named Johnny Johnson (Jeff Song), who is lost his memory and his direction. Johnny travels the country experiencing various American cultural traditions and repeatedly meeting a mysterious woman (Chris Everett-Hussey).

I always say that you don’t go to Revels for the plot. But in recent years they’ve been working on their narrative threads more, so this year’s story feels like a reversion to thinner storylines of the past. It also doesn’t make much sense. Needless to say the song and dance are great so it doesn’t need much else.

Several numbers from the 2009 show are revived in new settings, including:

  • A Shaker circle dance
  • Cherry Tree Carol – illustrated as a “movie” the cast watches
  • Children, Go Where I Send Thee – one of several numbers featuring the excellent vocals of Carolyn Saxon.
  • Longsword Dance to the Southern tune “Sandy Boys.”

Old time music is provided by Tui and Squirrel Butter on several numbers. Ana Vlieg Paulin provides a wonderful solo on “I Wonder as I Wander.” And long-time master of ceremonies keeps the audience on key and on in rhythm. My favorite numbers include:

  • “Dark as a Dungeon” – featuring tired coal miners walking through the audience to return to their families.
  • “Old Grandma Hobble-Gobble” – the Revels Children play a game with storyteller Bobbie Steinbach.
  • Sing-a-long with “I’ll Fly Away.”
  • The gospel of “Trouble All About My Soul.”
  • Medley of “Can the Circle Be Unbroken/This Land is Your Land.”

Performances of the Christmas Revels continue until December 29, so see it if you get the chance. And even if you miss it, mark you calendar for the 50th anniversary show in December 2020.

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