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.
Title: Stormy Weather
Release Date: July 21, 1943
Director: Andrew L. Stone
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Back when I reviewed Swing Time I noted that it would’ve been better if Fred Astaire include African American artists in his tribute to Bill Robinson. Then I realized I was a hypocrite since my list of classic movies had no Bill Robinson films. So I had Stormy Weather, a musical-dance-romance movie featuring the top African American performers of the era.
The movie is a loose biography of Bill Robinson’s career. How loose? The movie begins with Robinson’s character Bill Williamson returning from the First World War. In reality, Robinson fought in the Spanish American War, and entertained the troops in WWI. So we just ignore that the 64-year-old Robinson is playing a much younger character, especially when he strikes up a romance with 25-year-old Lena Horne’s character Selina Rogers.
The film is essentially a tribute to a quarter century of African American entertainment and follows Bill Williamson through a film packed with with song and dance numbers. I was actually surprised that the plot actually holds together based on the standard of movie musical plots. The movie begins with Bill going to a Harlem nightclub with his army buddy Gabe (Dooley Wilson) where he meets Selina and her manager/band leader Chick Bailey (Emmett ‘Babe’ Wallace) who becomes Bill’s romantic rival.
Bill returns home to Memphis, stopping to scat on a riverboat, and taking up a job as dancer/waiter in a night club where Ada Brown and Fats Waller sing the blues. They’re all hired to join Chick’s touring act and eventually Bill outshines Chick and leaves to start his own company. Bill and Selina split up but get back together in a night club scene featuring Cab Calloway (the generational difference between the two performers is acknowledged in a humorous scene where Robinson can’t understand Calloway’s jive talk). Lena Horne sings the stunning “Stormy Weather” and the brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas perform a remarkable dance where they leap down steps and land in splits and don’t suffer groin injuries!
It’s an amazingly entertaining film, and I’m leaving out a lot of the great performers and numbers. There are times where the movie leans into the stereotypes of African Americans that Hollywood audiences expected (for example, a comedy duo perform in blackface). But there’s also a sense of these artists reclaiming something from these stereotypes and showing how hard they strive toward excellence.
Title: Swing Time
Release Date: September 4, 1936
Director: George Stevens
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Having had mixed feelings about Top Hat, I was a bit dubious about watching another Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. The film starts with Astaire’s character John “Lucky” Garnett attempting to make it to his wedding on time but the other members of his dance troupe sabotage him. When the wedding is cancelled and Lucky makes his way to New York City to prove himself worthy, he meets Rogers’ character Penny and they squabble over a stolen quarter. The first 15 minutes or so of this movie is full of cringe comedy that set my teeth on edge.
But it turns out Penny is a dance instructor, and once made aware of Lucky’s dance ability, they are paired up to perform. Unlike Top Hat, they seem to genuinely like each other early on and scenes alternate among their dance numbers, scenes of gambling (Lucky is a gambler as well as a dancer), and their shyness about admitting they are falling in love (it strikes me that this is also the basic plot of Silver Linings Playbook, although they’re veeeeery different movies. The movie also introduces standards like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “A Fine Romance.”
I was thoroughly enjoying the movie when I saw that the next number would be called “Bojangles of Harlem.” I said to myself: “Please don’t come out in blackface. Pleeeeaaase don’t come out in blackface.” Folks, Fred Astaire totally came out in blackface, leaving me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Whatever Astaire’s intentions that this was a tribute to African American tap dancers, the fact is that it is nothing but black caricature. It’s doubly insulting because Bill Robinson, despite all his talents, wouldn’t get a chance to do a showstopper like this in a Hollywood film. It wouldn’t have been objectionable if Astaire had performed without blackface and the black caricature props alongside some African American performers (which is plausible since he would do that very thing in his very next film). It’s too bad it’s so racist, because this dance sequence does have a great special effect of Astaire dancing with his own shadows.
It was hard to settle into watching the movie again after this (especially since Astaire doesn’t remove the blackface for the dramatic scenes that follow). But there is a beautiful number “Never Gonna Dance” where Lucky and Penny dance their sorrow when they believe they’ll be going their separate ways. The conclusion of the movie is kind of odd, because the whole cast ends up giggling uncontrollably as if they were all high, or someone told an inside joke. Nevertheless this was a pretty great movie with one exception, but it’s a pretty big exception.
Rating: **1/2 (might’ve been ***1/2 without “Bojangles of Harlem”)
Title: Top Hat
Release Date: August 29, 1935
Director: Mark Sandrich
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
In all my life, I’d never before watched a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. Much of the plot is a thin link between the wonderful dance sequences. This movie is also the origination of “Cheek to Cheek,” which was the first dance at my wedding reception. Nevertheless, much of this movie left me cold.
This movie is divided into two parts. The first is in London where American dancer Jerry Travers (Astaire) has come to star in a show. His love for dance leads him to tapdance around his hotel suite awaking the guest downstairs, Dale Tremont (Rogers). When Dale complains, Jerry falls for her and begins following her around London. This is a romantic comedy trope that’s supposed to be romantic, but comes across as really creepy in this movie. His dance performance also involves him miming shooting all his back up dancers with his cane. Maybe its my modern sensibilities but I don’t find a massacre to be a fun thing to incorporate in dance.
The second part of the movie takes place in Venice where Dale travels for work and Jerry (creepily) follows her there. The set design for Venice only superficially resembles the city, but it’s great in its own right, and provides lots of steps and bridges for the dance sequences. I suppose if you ignore everything but the dance sequences, it’s really quite enjoyable, but I found much of the plot here, with Dale believing Jerry to be married, and then deciding to up and marry someone else, to just be obnoxious.
Title: La La Land
Release Date: December 9, 2016
Director: Damien Chazelle
Production Company: Summit Entertainment | Marc Platt Productions | Impostor Pictures | Gilbert Films
This romantic comedy is built on the premise of big song and dance numbers from the Golden Age of Hollywood but set in the present day. The movie stars Emma Stone as Mia Dolan, an aspiring actor frustrated by dead auditions, and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian Wilder, a jazz pianist taking on cheezy pop music gigs while hoping to open a classic jazz cafe. They meet cute, of course, and after some acrimony, they fall in love. I’ll have to say that Gosling’s character comes across as a jerk, and unlike other romantic comedies, doesn’t soften that much over the course of the film.
Stone and Gosling aren’t trained dancers but that gives their performances a certain charm of ordinary people trying to fit into the Hollywood dream. Los Angeles plays a big role in the film with many shots on-location at noted landmarks, and shot against the magic hour of sunset skies.
The song and dance numbers are great within the context of the film, but there’s nothing here I’d really want to listen to again. The one exception is a song Mia sings for her big audition “The Fools Who Dream,” which reminds me a lot of the finale to The Muppet Movie thematically. As strange as it may sound, La La Land and The Muppet Movie would make a great double feature. It has is similar in some ways, but less cynical, than Steve Martin’s L.A. Story.
Not to get too spoilery, but after a year of romance, set against the seasons, Mia and Seb go their separate ways. In a coda set five years later, they’ve each achieved their dreams, with Mia a movie star and Seb performing at his successful jazz club. There’s a dream sequence with a highly-stylized Hollywood rendition of what there life would be like if they’d stayed together. But what I really appreciate about this romantic comedy is that Mia and Seb do not get together at the end, nor do they mourn their lost love. They recognize that their time together was valuable, but have moved on to other things, and that’s ok. For all the tributes to Hollywood, that’s a message you rarely get from a Hollywood movie.
Sofi Tukker is a New York City based dance pop duo consisting of Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern. You may have heard it before because apparently it’s being used in commercials, but since I don’t have tv I’ve come to it with no preconceptions. Anyhow, a song about friendship is ideal for Thanksgiving weekend, and it also has some nice beats.
It’s not Christmas until I’ve partaken of the Christmas Revels which I enjoyed at a Monday matinée with my family at Sanders Theater. This is the 15th Christmas Revels production I’ve seen including one in Washington in 1995 and the rest in Cambridge from 2001-2006 and 2009 to present. This years celebration of Acadian/Cajun music, culture, and history is among the best. As an added bonus, the fire alarm went off near the end of intermission and we got to see everyone evacuate and the Cambridge Fire Department arrive. My son hadn’t finished his hot chocolate so he was happy for the extended intermission.
Most Revels productions tell a story, but this one has a strong narrative of the French settlers of Acadie in Canada who make the land arable, how they become stuck in the middle of the wars between the French and British, and their exile and resettlement in Louisiana. Such a heavy history does not always fit into the joyousness of Revels, and the scenes of their villages being burned and the Acadians forced to pack up and leave are giving appropriate gravitas. It’s such a Revels tradition to have the “villagers” on stage smiling and warmly interacting, that when during a mournful song the entire cast looks absently into space with somber looks on their faces it is a powerful moment.
But lest you think it’s all sad, there was plenty of joyous celebration. Here are some of my favorite moments:
- the large tree on the set, central to the themes of rootedness in the story, but also used to project images relevant to the performance
- the Revels also have unbelievably talented children in lead roles, and 12-year-old Lola May Williamson may be the best yet. I even saw her take the time to lift the spirits of a younger child who couldn’t help yawning during the performance.
- “Le Depart Du Canada (The Leaving of Canada)” feature the long march of villagers leaving Acadia, diagonally across the stage. I’m pretty sure the cast circled around at least twice to make the line appear even longer.
- “La Valse Cadienne de Noël” or the Cajun Christmas waltz
- the part where we threw plush chickens around the audience
- The Mummer’s Play featuring David Coffin as a caustic alligator
- It would seem that the character of the doctor in a Cajun mummer’s play would be obvious, but I was totally taken by surprise by the appearance of “Dr. John” (played by Steve Barkhimer) and perhaps the greatest tonal shift in Revels history as he launched into a performance of “Right Place, Wrong Time” followed by the Dixie Cups singing “Iko Iko”
- The all-women sword dance
The run of the 2016 Revels has ended but you can get yourself the album Valse de Noël and even audition for the 2017 Revels!
It’s warm and overcast out, and looking to only get warmer as the week goes. We’re more likely to have a wet Christmas than a white Christmas, but I know the holiday is coming soon. Today my family and I celebrated the solstice with a matinée of The Christmas Revels. This is our (mostly) annual tradition going back to 2001. The Revels this year is set in Wales, a land of beautiful singing traditions, poetry, and mythology. I’ve never been to Wales but this show gave me a nostalgic longing for the place.
It should be noted that while Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones are famed Welsh singers, their was music was not represented in the show. There were familiar tunes for the sing-a-longs – “Cwm Rhondda” and “Hydrofol” – which as song leader David Coffin pointed out, “you know these songs just not with these words.” The familiar Christmas carol “Deck the Hall” was also sung by a choir of children, but in the original Welsh. The children – who were excellent as always – also performed scenes from Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
There’s a beautiful scene near the end of Part 1 where Coffin sings “Daffydd y Garregg Wen (David of the White Rock)” accompanied by Haley Hewitt, while Emma Crane Jaster performing as the legendary bard Taliesen. Jaster is lit from below and moves her arms like a harpist, casting large shadows on the roll-top desk ceiling of Sanders Theatre. My daughter imitated the gesture, waving her arms by her own imaginary harp. (And I was right in my memory that Taliesen is also the name of Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate in Wisconsin). Other highlights include a group of rugby supporter singing a rousing victory song, some fine clogging, and a retelling of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” with the children.
No matter where in the world the Revels is set, there are the Revel’s traditions. There was a rowdy morris dance and “The Lord of the Dance” where we all spill out into the lobby singing and dancing (I can never get enough of doing that), there’s the haunting Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and there’s the mummer’s play, this year with the Red Dragon playing the role of the hero vanquishing the White Dragon of England for the Welsh. We sing rounds, we shout “Welcome Yule!,” we finish on “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” I weep. Tradition.
I was entranced as – for me – the Revels never fail to please. My kids were more antsy. Welsh-language songs make no sense, and my son said even the English was hard to follow. My daughter wanted to see a dragon and had to wait a looooong time for a four-year-old, but I think the dragon’s eventual arrival satisfied. They soldiered through and I think they enjoyed themselves, although they wanted cookies too.
Performances continue through December 27, so get your tickets and go if you haven’t already.