‘Christmas Revels’ Brings Victorian Dance Hall Celebration to Sanders Theater (4.5 Stars)

Christmas Revels – A Victorian Celebration of the Winter Solstice. Directed by Patrick Swanson; Musical Direction by George Emlen; Set Design by Jeremy Barnett; Costume Design by Heidi A. Hermiller; Choreography by Gillian Stewart. Presented by Revels at The Sanders Theater at Harvard University, 45 Quincy Street Cambridge, through December 28th.

If you’ve never attended the annual “The Christmas Revels – In Celebration of the Winter Solstice”, now playing at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge, it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed. Along with other Boston area holiday traditions like “The Nutcracker” (or for those who like their holiday entertainment a little more risque – the “Slutcracker”) it’s a holiday favorite for a reason. Each year the Revels takes us to another place in time (last year was a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain) and this year we travel to late 19th century Victorian England, about 50 years past the setting for “A Christmas Carol” and Scrooge. While “Christmas Revels” shows are always packed with traditional carols and lots and lots of audience participation, this year’s program (the 44th) also features a number of turn of the century dance hall songs, and a very funny and entertaining “Panto” version of Cinderella, a type of musical comedy stage production developed in England during that era and generally performed during the Christmas and New Year season.

One of the first things that became apparent to me this year and last was that “Christmas Revels” is a tradition that much of the audience observes yearly. As a matter of fact, the gentleman sitting directly behind me had flown in from Washington D.C. to see the performance for the 32nd consecutive year. From the very opening of the show, when charismatic baritone David Coffin began taking the audience through the paces to learn the chorus of “The Lord of the Dance” – the 1963 English hymn written by Sydney Carter – it was obvious that a good portion of the audience had done this before. That song closes out the first act, where the entire chorus from the production leaves the stage and joins hands with the audience in a serpentine dance that leads to the lobby for intermission. But fear not, audience participation for the show is not mandatory, and my companion and I were able to sit comfortably through the break.

The beautiful singing of the deep and talented chorus is always a mainstay of any Revels production, and there were some stunning highlights, beginning with “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” to open the show, and “Hallelujah, Amen” in the second half. There were also some rowdy dance hall songs, such as “Don’t Dilly Dally on the Way” and ‘When Father Papered The Parlour”, led by soloist Sarah deLima in the first and Billy Meleady and Marge Dunn acting out the verses for the latter. David Coffin was also a standout with “Christmas Bells at Sea”, a ballad by Sir Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert & Sullivan fame. The performances by “The Cheapside Children” – the children’s chorus, were also compelling, especially their version of “Away In A Manger” which was sung with the children bearing candles, making for an angelic visual.

But what made the show really fun for me were the buskers (street performers) and the “Cinderella” Panto. Revels again brought in comic actor Meleady to the production and paired him with talented local actor Marge Dunn as a pair of street performers who hustle their way to the big time for the “Cinderella” Panto. They bring along the brilliant Mark Jaster and Sabrina Selma Mandell, who appear as classically trained actors who are reduced to busking as a way to put food in their bellies, and their performances are nothing short of brilliant. The four form the core of the “Cinderella” Panto, which is laugh out loud funny.

Another great aspect of this production is the incredible venue, the Sanders Theatre. Originally designed to host Harvard commencements and lectures, the theater has been host to productions since 1895. It is acoustically perfect and the architecture inside and out of the 1,166 seat theatre is breathtaking. If you’ve never been to Christmas Revels, now is the time. This is a terrific alternative entertainment for the holiday season. For more info, go to: http://www.revels.org/