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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Theater Review: The Haunted Life at Merrimack Repertory Theatre


Play: The Haunted Life
Venue: Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Writer: Sean Daniels
Director: Sean Daniels and christopher oscar peña

Susan and I enjoyed a night out at the theater last night thanks to tickets I won from WERS.  We saw a new play called The Haunted Life at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA which is based on a novel written by Lowell’s own Jack Kerouac.  Kerouac’s wrote the novel in 1944 but it wasn’t published until 2014, and it contains a lot of autobiographical details about Kerouac’s life.

The play focuses on 19-year-old the Holden Caulfield-esque character Peter Martin (Raviv Ullman), and begins in the summer of 1941 when he is home for the summer after his freshman year at Boston College.  One of Peter’s friends tries to encourage him to join the Army in order to find adventure, while another friend, Garabed (both played by Vichet Chum), keeps Peter up all night arguing about poetry.  Peter also enjoys picnics with his girlfriend Eleanor (Caroline Neff). At home, Peter’s father Joe (Joel Colonder) – himself a French Canadian immigrant – rages about the new immigrants destroying America.  Peter’s mother Vivienne (Tina Fabrique) worries about her older son who ran away to join the merchant marine a decade earlier and of whom Peter hardly remembers anything.

After fighting with his father over his racism, Peter also runs away to the merchant marine. When the US enters World War II, Peter leaves the merchant marine and tries to set himself up as poet in Manhattan, but is unable to make himself write anything. In of the most biting lines of dialogue, he tells Eleanor that he’s an “inactive poet,” to which she responds “an inactive poet is not a poet.”  Losing friends and family to the war, Peter shuts out everyone else in his life, and wallows in brooding despair.  Surprisingly, it is reconciling with his father that helps Peter to engage with the world again and decide what is important to do with his life.

The play is performed on a simple stage with few props against a backdrop of many windows fitted together.  The performers frequently deliver monologues that comment on Peter’s feelings and actions, that can be poetic or pretentious depending on your perspective.

Vichet Chum is probably the strongest actor in the show and displays his versatility in playing multiple characters.  Caroline Neff has a relatively small part, but also puts in a great performance, and also was the only actor who didn’t seem to be rushing her lines.  I was delighted to find out that Tina Fabrique provided the vocals for the original Reading Rainbow theme song, although I’m sure does not want to be pigeonholed just for that.  Fabrique may have the smallest part in the play but gives a depth and warmth to what could’ve been a stereotypical “mother” role.  I appreciate the casting of actors that encapsulate the modern-day diversity of Lowell that adds to the sense that the issues debated in a play set almost 80 years ago are still the same issues of today.

The Haunted Life continues performances through April 14, so if you have the opportunity, get yourself to Lowell and see it!

Theater Review: Pippin


Show: Pippin
Venue: Footlight Club
Date: September 21, 2018

Taking a Friday night date night performance of Pippin at the Footlight Club in Jamaica Plain fulfilled two long-term goals.  First, after eleven years living in Jamaica Plain, we finally made it to a show at the Footlight Club, a lovely and historic playhouse.  Second, I’ve liked the music from Pippin – especially the song “Corner of the Sky” – for a long time, but I’d never seen it performed.

I had a vague understanding that this musical was about Pippin, the son of King Charlemagne, and his involvement with a troop of players.  Vague is more accurate than I realized. Pippin, Charlemagne, and the other characters share the names with historical figures, but otherwise have no historical parallels.  In fact, the show is designed to remind the audience that what we’re seeing is an artifice, a performance but on by a troop of players (who are performed by our real live actors).

The basic plot is young Pippin’s yearning to find meaning to his existence.  In the first act he joins his father’s army, experiments with meaningless sexual encounters, and plots a revolution to overthrow is father’s tyranny.  In the second act, he falls into despair and is restored to health by the widow Catherine, who owns a large farm.  While Pippin does not enjoy the daily routine of manual labor, he falls in love with Catherine and grows fond of her son, Theo.  The finale features Pippin deciding between the temptation of the Leading Player’s “perfect” but self-destructive act, or a quiet life with Catherine and Theo. It’s a much darker play than I imagined, and the music and the humor balances a sometimes cynical, sometimes sarcastic critique of the human condition.

The Footlight Club cast is absolutely wonderful. Andrea Giangreco needs to be singled-out for her performance as the Leading Player which she filled with exuberance and joy, cleverly uncovering the character’s manipulative and cruel side over the course of the play.  Mary O’Donnell’s performance as Pippin’s grandmother Berthe provided the standout musical number of “No Time at All.” Not only was O’Donnell’s singing humorous and heartwarming, but the ensemble helped the audience participate by displaying the lyrics to the chorus through a remarkable trick of opening trunks and suitcases.  I can’t imagine how long they rehearsed that!  The Bob Fosse choreography screams FOSSE, but it’s still awe-inspiring.

If you’re in or near JP, make your way to the Footlight Club to see Pippin before it closes on September 29th.

The Christmas Revels: An Acadian-Cajun Celebration of the Winter Solstice


 

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!

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JP A to Z: F is for Footlight Club #AtoZChallenge #JamaicaPlain


F is for Footlight Club

Another historic landmark in Jamaica Plain it The Footlight Club, America’s oldest community theater, founded in 1877.  They perform in Eliot Hall, a charming Greek Revival/Italianate structure constructed in 1832 and acquired by the club in 1889.

In my time in Jamaica Plain, I’ve been to The Footlight Club, well, never.  But I mean to address this!  And when I do see a show, you’ll read a review here on Panorama of the Mountains.

Footlights Club-1

Footlights Club-2

Post for “F” in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Click to see more “Blogging A to Z” posts.