Christmas Revels Takes Us On A Musical Journey (5 Stars)

The Christmas Revels – In Celebration of the Winter Solstice. Directed by Patrick Swanson, Music Direction by George Emlen; Choreography by Gillian Stewart; Costume Design by Heidi A. Hermiller; Set Design by Jeremy Barnett; Puppets by Sara Peattie and the Puppeteers Cooperative; Presented by Revels, Inc. at the Sanders Theatre at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA through 12/27.

There are a plethora of holiday productions currently underway in Greater Boston that have little to do with the commercialization of the Christmas holiday as we know it, but none takes us back as far or celebrates quite as gloriously as the 43rd edition of “The Christmas Revels – In Celebration of the Winter Solstice”, now playing at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge through December 27th. Each year the Revels selects a different country’s traditions to celebrate, and this year we’re taken along on the pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain and the tomb of St. James by protagonist Everyman (played by internationally acclaimed and Marshfield-based storyteller Jay O’Callahan). Along the way on his quest, he is knighted and soon accompanied by his squire (actor Billy Meleady, who played “Mr. Poet” in last year’s Irish Christmas Revels) as well as his muse and ‘guardian angel’ (who is in fact a barmaid), played by Mexican stage and screen actress Angelica Aragon (who also appeared in the 1994 Meso-American Christmas Revels with her 5 year old daughter).

It is said that the joy is in the journey, and even before Everyman meets his companions, he makes frequent stops along the way at various festivals and religious orders, some of which carry a Yuletide theme such as ‘Three Kings’ Day’, and others that are just celebrations of the human existence, featuring song, dance, food and wine. Either way, the music and dancing is of a culture that dates back as far the 12-14th centuries, so it’s nothing like I, (as a first time Reveler) have ever experienced before. This is not King Richard’s Faire, although the costumes and sets might remind you of a renaissance festival.

There are multiple elements to this show that differentiate it enormously from other productions, and it begins with the music. First, there is a huge participatory element, and song leader and baritone David Coffin (who also plays a number of instruments) comes out at the beginning of the show to make sure the audience understands their parts, and he runs them through the songs they will be singing (detailed in the program as if it were a church hymnal). It is obvious that many of the audience members have been through his paces before, and it is done with great glee. But fear not, this is no sing-along production. The large cast of singers (the Revels Chorus) are gifted and well-rehearsed and many of the pieces are absolutely beautiful. The Pilgrim Band and the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble provides the instrumentation and features a number of stellar players on instruments as varied as the recorder, gaita, harp and pieces I’m not familiar with such as a sackbut and a shawm. The musical highlight of the show for me though, were the hauntingly beautiful songs performed by Christa Patton on harp and Salome Sandoval on baroque guitar, especially on the numbers ‘Esta Noite De Natale (On This Joyous Christmas Night)’ and ‘Espagnoletta’.

The story telling by Jay O’Callahan is reminiscent of a medieval Garrison Keillor and the stories that he regales the audience with are nothing short of spellbinding, particularly ‘The Singing Sack’ – a tale of a young girl outwitting a witch. There are also some nice comic moments provided in the show, mostly by Everyman and his sidekick, and there is a nice little skit towards the end where Everyman battles a dragon and talented soprano Jennie O’Brien chimes in with a familiar and amusing (though lyrically altered) nod to Bizet’s Carmen.

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 nearly 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: