Bay Area Theater Review: THE CHRISTMAS REVELS: SPIRITS OF HADDON HALL (Scottish Rite Theater)

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by Stacy Trevenon on December 19, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Anyone with a soft spot for holiday song and dance through history must attend the California Revels lofty production of The Christmas Revels: Spirits of Haddon Hall at Oakland’s Scottish Rite Theater. Don’t look for polished theatrical sophistication here. Rather, enjoy what you’ll find instead: High-spirited holiday fun presented by a talented multi-generational cast that brings the sounds and steps of the past alive, woven into a simple but heartwarming story. With David Parr’s innovative direction and Jeri Reed’s choreography, the event brings the viewer right into the revelry without leaving his seat.

2013 Christmas Revels - Jeff Raz and Kieran ReedIt’s 1925 at the English country estate of Haddon Hall. Its lord and lady can no longer afford the upkeep of their ancestral home and so, against the indignant outcry of their children, they plan to demolish the beautiful medieval manor.  But the children aren’t the only ones mourning its imminent loss: Ghosts from all levels of society–from nobility to domestic staff to high-stepping Morris dancers–flock into the ancient, resounding halls to celebrate the winter solstice one final time. Can their magical effort change the mind of the stolid lord of the manor?

In this pageant of folk theater, traditional music and dance, The California Revels’ performers seem to be reveling in their own history, as well: The Christmas Revels have rightfully made this a beloved community tradition for nearly three decades; within five minutes, their 28th annual holiday show will validate why this is so. 2013 Christmas Revels - CastRobert Sicular rightfully makes a very proper Duke of Rutland while the other actors create an accessible family to whom we can relate. The live music is as full-bodied as the songs it accompanies, with kudos to music director Fred Goff and arranger Shira Kammen and her wonderful fiddle playing. A chorus of 65 adults, teens and children make up the Haddon Haunts, Backstairs Wraiths and Derbyshire Sprites, aided by The Deer Creek Morris Men and The Brass West Quintet. Embodying diverse cultures, all were wonderfully memorable as they presented the music spawned by those artistically copious civilizations.

2013 Christmas Revels - Jeri Reed and Rowan ReedTraditional carols such as “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “The Boar’s Head Carol” and “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” are performed by the ghosts with lusty spirit. I particularly appreciated the program notes which gave information about the cultural and factual history behind each one.

Other songs, both sacred and secular, hark back from the early 20th century to medieval or Renaissance times but seemed to be the very meat of the production, as they were performed with a joyousness and unpretentious simplicity which brought the whole show very close to the listener. Some modern selections—“The Housekeepers’ Dance,” lively with a ragtime flavor, and “The Lord of the Dance,” with roots in the familiar Shaker song “Simple Gifts”—beautifully illustrated the versatility of the troupe as it plumbed the rich offerings of musical and cultural history.

2013 Christmas Revels - James GalileoSprites cavort to celebrate in the halls; mummers recall the cycles of the season in the death and revival of a hero; Morris dancers leap right out of the middle ages to keep time with their flying sticks and richly ringing bells; fools gambol in playful exercises in physical comedy; and ancient figures (the “folk fool,” the “man-woman,” the “hobby horse” and the “boy archer”) step to the joyful yet riveting Abbots Bromley Horn Dance (still performed in the English village of Abbots Bromley) .

All of the history comes alive in songs that are both catchy and rich with beautifully harmonized texture.  In a clever, timeless and beautifully balanced way, the ancient is interwoven with a relevant contemporary context: Can a family keep a beloved old home against the odds of economic realities? Oh, and there are also generous helpings of holiday cheer, audience participation, sing-alongs and lusty humor. Put this one on your Christmas calendar as surely as you put your favorite decoration on the tree.

2013 Christmas Revels - Suzanne Long and Cynthia Bassham

photos © California Revels Inc.

The 28th Annual Christmas Revels: Spirits of Haddon Hall
produced by Dirk Burns
The California Revels
Scottish Rite Theater, 1547 Lakeside Dr. in Oakland
scheduled to end on December 22, 2013
for tickets, call (510) 510.452.8800 or visit

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