REVIEW: The 52nd annual ‘Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration Tales from Ellis Island’ shares solace and warmth into a tapestry of traditions from around the world
After a half century, the Midwinter Revels can not only still create fresh and concise storytelling while weaving in various cultures and traditions with a balance of joy and poignancy, but this year recalls a miraculous event in history that is not shared enough during the holiday season.
Innovatively written and directed by Patrick Swanson and guided by Carolyn Saxon as the Immortal Spirit of Place, Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration Tales from Ellis Island continues live and in person at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, MA through December 28 and then will be available virtually December 29 through January 15. Each performance pays tribute to Revels supporters and this particular performance was dedicated to the The Rioff Family in honor of WGBH’s Brian O’Donovan. This show is translated in ASL and is approximately two hours with one intermission. Click here for more information and tickets.
Veteran reveler David Coffin’s enthusiasm reflected the same from the audience as he vigorously prepared them pre-production for the Revels live and interactive sing-along that features a vast array of carols and cultural songs. Meticulously musically directed by Elijah Botkin and led by Keith Murphy of A Saint Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn, an intimate onstage band returns as the Liberty Band performing carols to folk to war songs from around the world right alongside the cast. The joy and gratitude in singing in front of an audience again is as uplifting as ever and the cast’s a cappella harmonies are a glorious treat.
Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration Tales from Ellis Island does not just take place on Ellis Island, but provides the foundation for each of the tales shared during the production. The tales of hardship and strife seem so different, but are somehow tied into shared experiences as immigrants from all over the world find themselves stranded together on Christmas Eve in 1924. The spirit of the season is exemplified in several tales including a fiddle that needs mending featuring Maeve Leahy as Bridget and Ewan Swanson as Isaac.
Adorned in a glimmering gown and gold wreathed crown, Carolyn Saxon makes a warm and welcome return to Revels this time as the Immortal Spirit of Place. Her subtle charm and light humor enhance each aspect of the production as she guides the audience through various tales and periods in history in Nikes. Saxon is clearly enjoying this enigmatic role becoming invisible when she wishes and popping up at felicitous and spontaneous moments.
While last year’s show focused on saving a bar by venturing into the past, family is much more prevalent as members of the cast tie in pieces of their own cultural holiday memories into the production. Irish and Jewish Dramaturg Nicole Galland contributed by drawing on her own experiences and upbringing. With frank and humorous inflections, Reveler Stephanie Clayman is an amiable and avid storyteller as she brings some of those tales to life such as two well staged pieces of morally centered Jewish folklore and several Chanukah traditions.
David Coffin as Conor Riley revealed a miraculous event during World War I that took place on Christmas Eve in 1914. For a brief time, soldiers showed camaraderie with their enemies as they joined together in song, games, and friendship. It is a historical event that needs to be shared with as much frequency as annual holiday traditions such How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol, or It’s a Wonderful Life. That brief interlude of peace made such a significant impact on the world and Midwinter Revels depicts that moving period of time with Christmas in the Trenches, O Tannenbaum and Stile Nacht as the production spread itself beyond the Sanders Theatre stage.
The children are always a joy to watch and this year as the Ellis Island Children, they share upbeat, jumping rope rhythm for There’s a Big Ship Sailing and later with Las Posadas as Mary rides on a donkey. It is just one example of the many endearing appearances they make in song and tale.
A brilliant performance comes from Ricardo Holguin who passionately performs a wondrous rendition of Mexican love song La Malgeuna followed by striking number El Relampago featuring women in gorgeous floral headdresses and sun drenched gowns by Heidi Hermiller. Kelli Edwards’ multifaceted choreography is on full display throughout as well as for a tricky and intricate sword dance accompanied by an onstage accordion and drummer for The Straw Folk Mummers Play and Rogue’s Delight.
Though the show lulled a bit on occasion, Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration Tales from Ellis Island’s engaging tales bring unity and light and depicts how sharing different traditions can bring a new understanding and warmth into the darkest of times.
Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration Tales from Ellis Island continues live and in person at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, MA through December 28 and then will be available virtually December 29 through January 15. Click here for more information and tickets.