The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge are annual family tradition. My first Revels experience was in Washington in 1996. After moving to the Boston area, the Cambridge Revels were an annual event from 2001-2006. We missed the show in 2007 due to a newborn, and in 2008 due to a blizzard, but have been regular attendees since 2009 (that same year I actually sang in the chorus!). So, I calculate that I’ve seen 13 different Christmas Revels performances. Each year is delightful and surprising in its own way.*
This year’s Revels is set in Victorian England, with music halls and the Crystal Palace playing center stage. The first act shows two teams of buskers competing on the streets of a Northern England town as the Crystal Palace manager Harry Colcord and composer Arthur Sullivan seek an alternate performer after a cancellation. In the usual Revels’ way, everything comes together as the buskers join forces to create a performance of music, tricks, and a “panto” of Cinderella. The second act is treated as a command performance at the Crystal Palace (complete with life-size wooden cutouts of the royal family in the mezzanine).
Highlights of the show:
- comic busking performances by Marge Dunn, Billy Meleady, Mark Jaster, and Sabrina Selma Mandell
- singing a round of “Row the Boat, Whittington”
- David Coffin’s solos on “It Was My Father’s Custom” and on the melodic “Christmas Bells at Sea”
- the sing-a-long and acting out of “When Father Papered the Parlour”
- the “Panto” of Cinderella, which while not a true Panto (oh no it isn’t!), we did get to shout “Don’t touch Billy’s eggs” several times
- And of course, the Revels traditions of “Lord of the Dance” (and dancing out into the lobby), “Dona Nobis Pacem,” “The Shortest Day,” and “Sussex Mummers’ Carol.” Unfortunately, the “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” was conspicuously absence in this year’s performance.
There are five more performances from December 26-28, so if you’re in or near Cambridge, get a ticket and go!
* I also recently discovered that the Revels website has a list detailing the theme of every performance from 1971 to present. Now I need to discover time travel technology so I can go back in time and see each and every one.
This afternoon, my wife, son, and good family friend Craig took in the performance of The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge. The annual pageant of music, dance, storytelling, and drama focused this year on the pilgrimage along the Camino de Compostela in the Spanish region of Galicia. As a Celtic culture, the Galicians have their own version of the bagpipe called the gaita which featured prominently. Any piece featuring gaita and drums was a highlight for me. The largest drum resonated throughout the house.
The story of this Revels follows Everyman (portrayed by Jay O’Callahan) on his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella and onwards to the End of the Earth in Finisterre. Elements of Don Quixote are woven into the story as Everyman is knighted and joined on his journey by squire Sancho (Billy Meleady, who starred in last year’s show) and the tavern keeper Angélica (the delightful Angélica Aragón).
Usually the theme of a Revels’ performance is an excuse to tie together song and dance numbers, but this story of a pilgrimage actually maintains a pretty continuous narrative built around set pieces along the Camino, in a tavern, at a monastery, at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and finally at Finisterre. The sets and lighting are really remarkable in adapting the stage for the different places along the journey.
Highlights of the show include:
- the talent and hard work of the Revels’ children whose performance more than ever is fully-integrated into the show.
- the charming line dance when the pilgrims are greeted by the monks to the tune of “Alborada de Ourense.”
- O’Callahan telling the story of “The Singing Sack.”
- sing-a-long with choreography to “Fum, Fum, Fum.”
- puppetry and lights to enact the Galacian version of the posadas ritual.
- an amazing bit of stagecraft where a giant censer is swung like a pendulum over the performers on the stage (based on the Botafumeiro at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
- Jaime Jaffe’s solo performance of “Ondas Do Mar De Vigo.”
- a mummers play featuring a mustachioed dragon who performed the hammiest death throes.
There were some disappointments. Jay O’Callahan was hard to understand and I’m not sure if he was mumbling or mic’ed improperly. Sitting in balcony center meant it took a long time to get downstairs to participate in “The Lord of the Dance.” It ended just as we reached the lobby. While I would not rank this among my all time favorite Revels’ performances, it was still delightful and I recommend seeing it if you have the chance. There are four more performances before the show closes on December 27th, so get your tickets now!
The Boston Globe has a more-detailed review for your perusal.
It would not be Christmas without the Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge. This year my wife, son and I joined by our friends Abby, Kim, & Sid took in the Winter Solstice performance on the evening of December 21st. The show was delightful as always with the subject being near and dear to my heart, the music of Irish emigrants as they sail the new world.
The show was a more restrained and simple performance than a typical Revels keeping to the theme of the cast being impoverished immigrants aboard a ship and not having much to celebrate with. After the opening number, lines and gangways were removed from the sides of the stage and notably no cast members went down the steps into “the ocean” except during a storytelling sequence. These restraints did nothing to detract from the beauty of the song, dance, and stories performed.
Highlights of the show for me included:
- Bill Meleady’s colorful telling of The Soul Cages, the exception to the restraint on the performance where the visuals of the story come to life in vivid detail. I enjoyed the dancing crustaceans especially as well as Steve Barkhimer’s portrayal of the merrow Coomara.
- “The Wexford Lullaby” gorgeously performed by Mary Casey along with Jamie Jaffe as a duet and later as a quartet.
- The dramatic “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” swelling as the audience joins the chorus.
- “The Lord of the Dance” is always a highlight and was cleverly worked into the show as being the English ship crews’ contribution to the shipboard celebration.
- The show had several sets of traditional Irish music by The Rattling Brogues and step dance by O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance that livened up the proceedings greatly.
- If there was one minor disappointment is that the show ends with the immigrants seeing The Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The show is set aboard the Cunard steamship RMS Carpathia and since Cunard had a western terminus in Boston (there’s still an office building marked “CUNARD” on State Street) it would have been a nice local connection to have the ship dock here instead of New York.
A traditional element of the Revels – “The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” – was not included in the program but as this was the Winter Solstice, the audience was treated to a special rendition of Abbots Bromley after the curtain call. I’d actually guessed that Abbots Bromley was the surprise we’d been promised before the show, but it was still a thrill when the first haunting notes of the recorder came out and the audience reacted with joy.
This was another great Revels and I believe all the shows were sold out. If you missed this year’s Revels, make sure to get your tickets early for next year’s show which I promise will be just as great.
This afternoon my family and I took in the annual performance of The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theater in Cambridge. The Revels is a family tradition and this marks the tenth Christmas Revels production I’ve attended (including a Washington Revels performance in 1995 and performing as a cast member in the 2009 Christmas Revels). This was also my four-year-old son’s second Christmas Revels and my five-week-old daughter’s first Revels ever. Peter showed exemplary behavior and was deeply engaged by the performance while Kay amazed me by actually appearing to watch the show at times when she wasn’t feeding or napping.
The Revels impress me each year by crafting a show around a theme with consistent narrative that logically incorporates music and dance from various traditions. This year’s production is set in a French fishing village on the Mediterranean that is hosting an annual feast that draws pilgrims from near and wide. Thus we are able to enjoy traditional music from France and other parts of Europe as well as traveling performers from the East playing Arabic music. The Sharq Trio steal the show with sets in both acts of Arabic singing, dance and percussion. The trio seemed to mesmerize my infant daughter at the very least. Salome Sandoval also lends her stunning voice as a soloist.
The center of the performance is three members of the Guild of Fools – Soleil (Timothy Sawyer), Etoile (Sabrina Selma Mandell), and Eclaire de Lune (Mark Jaster) – performing the annual pageant. Amid the music and revelry there is the lurking presence of the skeletal Boney (Linnea Coffin) who seems to be just out of sight of the villagers on stage, but very frightening to at least one four-year-old boy in the audience. At a key moment in the first act, Boney and her skeleton crew seize the light from the world plunging the holiday performance into darkness. The fools thus are given the quest of finding their namesake light sources – the moon, the stars, and the sun – which they do with plenty of song and dance and a nativity play along the way. The Revels crew deserve a lot of credit for the stage design featuring multiple layers of scaffolding for the performers and a Ship of Fools upon which the featured trio sail to fish for the reflection of the moon. The costuming is also brilliant, especially Soleil, Etoile, and Eclaire de Lune’s outfits for the concluding mummer’s play. And the makeup helped make Boney and the other skeletons the scariest things I’ve ever seen in a Revels’ production.
The final performance is Thursday December 29th at 1 pm, so get tickets and go see the show if you can. If you’re reading this after the fact, make sure to check out The Revels’ website for future events.
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!
Other reviews & articles: