The Boston Globe Review: For Christmas Revels, a welcome return to Victorian England

12.17.2014

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By Jeffrey Gantz    |   Globe Correspondent    December 16, 2014

CAMBRIDGE — Victorian London is such a natural setting for “The Christmas Revels” that it’s hard to believe Revels hasn’t used it since 1998. The current “Victorian Celebration of the Winter Solstice” is in fact the sixth Victorian edition (including the excursion to Thomas Hardy’s Wessex in 2008), and it’s to Revels’ credit that every return visit seems fresh and new. This one, whose improbable highlight is a Cinderella panto, can take its place among the best “Christmas Revels” in the production’s 44-year history.

It doesn’t actually open in London. Rather, we’re in a market square in the north of England. The half-timbered shop front has windows belonging to a milliner’s and a butcher’s, and advertising hoardings overhead promote everything from Fry’s chocolate to Cetacolor detergent. In the square, impresario Harry Colcord (Walter Locke) runs into an old acquaintance, Sir Arthur Sullivan (David Gullette), the composer of the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, and is introduced to Sir Arthur’s special friend, Mrs. Fanny Ronalds (Sarah deLima).

Harry is excited because he’s bringing a Russian ballet troupe to dance “Cinderella” at London’s Crystal Palace, in a command performance for the Prince of Wales. When he learns that the troupe has the Russian flu and is quarantined, he fears he’ll be ruined. But Fanny and Sir Arthur encourage him to go on with the show, and he hires a quartet of buskers (Billy Meleady, Marge Dunn, Mark Jaster, and Sabrina Selma Mandell) to make it happen.

The first half of the program includes a West Gallery version of “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” a chorus from Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” the parlor song “It Was My Father’s Custom,” the Cheapside Children playing at “Oranges and Lemons,” and an abbreviated version of the annual mummers’ play, this one the “Marshfield Paper Boys Play,” the mummers all covered in strips of newspaper. The buskers squabble over whose territory it is; Meleady leads the Cheapside Children in the chimney-sweep number “I’ll Be Up Your Way Next Week.” All walks of society are represented, from toffs in top hats to street kids in scally caps.

In 1998, the second half was set in a red-velvet-curtained parlor. This time out, what looks suspiciously like the same curtain magically transforms Sanders Theatre into the Crystal Palace, complete with overhanging pediment in the red, blue, and yellow colors of the Crystal Palace football club. DeLima, sporting a flawless cockney accent, invites us to join her for a tipple “Down at the Old Bull and Bush”; Meleady gets himself into a sticky situation as he and Dunn offer the music-hall favorite “When Father Papered the Parlour”; Jaster and Mandell appear as “Vlad and Olga: Turks With Teeth of Steel.” Dunn is a winsome Cinderella, but the panto gets stolen by Mandell and Jaster as stepsisters Twinky and Velveeta, and by the musical snippets, which range from “”Someday My Prince Will Come” and “I Feel Pretty” to “Big Spender” and “Let’s Twist Again.”

Of the traditional favorites, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is absent this year, but David Coffin leads the “Dona nobis pacem” round, as always, and it concludes with the Sussex Mummers’ Carol. Revels’ poorly kept secret is that the talented performers appear to be making it up as they go along. If the Prince of Wales had been lucky enough to see this “Christmas Revels” at the Crystal Palace, he’d have commanded it to come back every year.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

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