REVIEW: Strength of Christmas Revels' 'Nordic Celebration' is in the singing

12.18.2018

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By Caitlyn Kelleher 
Director of Multimedia 
Posted Dec 17, 2018 at 5:00 PM

CAMBRIDGE - The cast and musicians of the Christmas Revels’ “A Nordic Celebration of the Winter Solstice” captured the audience from the first note Saturday afternoon at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge.

More than 1,150 people filled the late-19th century theater on the edge of Harvard University’s campus for the matinee performance of this 48th edition of The Christmas Revels. Each year the Revels’ holiday program travels through song and dance to a different area of the world; this holiday season we share in the celebrations of the Northlands - Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

The singers have an amazing grasp of the Scandinavian languages featured in many of the traditional songs performed during the 2 1/2 hour show. The clarity of the lyrics and the tonal quality of the music are astounding. The songs combine Swedish carols and Danish wassails, Norwegian ballads and swirling dances, Icelandic hymns and Finnish rune songs and those who love music will not get enough of this show and the acoustics of the round theater.

In “A Nordic Celebration of the Winter Solstice,” we travel with young Sven, whose parents are hosting a Christmas party for ministers and dignitaries from all of the Scandinavian countries. From the opening scene to the last note of the show, it’s clear Sven loves to dream, read books and remember his dead uncle; past times that frustrate his father.

“Change comes in the guise of three unusual Christmas presents. They usher Sven into an alternative universe populated by witches, snakes and superheroes, where he is reunited with his late uncle in a series of life-changing adventures,” says artistic director Paddy Swanson, in the program.

Sven is played by Ewan Swanson and David Coffin returns for his 38th year with the Revels as song leader and master of ceremonies. Other featured players include Christopher Kandra, Noni Lewis, Sarah Morrisette and Matt Winberg.

The cast features more 80 singers, dancers and musicians, as well as the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble. Performances are directed by Swanson and music director Megan Henderson.

The show mirrors “The Nutcracker” in many ways, with the first half tied to the world of the late-1800s and early-1900s and the second half taking place in a magical world as seen by a child.

The plot, which seemed clear in the beginning scenes of the first half of the show and the entire second half, lost some of its momentum before intermission. It was difficult to tell if the music moved the plot along because the songs were in foreign languages. More visual cues could help piece the story together for the audience. The printed program includes details that provide more insight into the history and content of the songs, but more is needed for the audience understand how the songs integrate with the story.

The audience enjoyed the enthusiastic singalongs that are a much-loved hallmark of the Revels, including “Lord of the Dance” to the melody of “Simple Gifts,” “Silent Night,” and the annual performance of “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol.”

In addition to being transported by the Nordic songs, the show’s imaginative costumes and set designs take us to a magical world. Costumes by designer Heidi Hermiller brought the characters in the folk tales to life, especially those of the reindeer in the “Gammel Reinlender Dance.” The work of set designer Jeremy Barnett and projection designer Ari Herzig should also be noted, as these elements were breathtaking without being ostentatious.

At the beginning of the show Coffin tells the audience “sing whenever you can,” and that is also a message for the Revels’ cast.

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