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Review: ‘The Christmas Revels: A French-Canadian Winter Celebration’ at Washington Revels

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Washington Revels presents us with a festive holiday offering for a 35th year. This season, we take a trip to the winter wonderland of Quebec in The Christmas Revels: A French-Canadian Winter Celebration. With Artistic Director Roberta Gasbarre at the helm, this musical journey through the Canadian wilderness and the village of Trois-Rivières is sure to be a crowd pleaser.

This unique holiday production features two Québécois artists: the singer Melisande and dancer Pierre Chartrand, as well as the multi-talented Québécois traditional musicians of Genticorum. Also featured is local sword dancing group Cutting Edge Sword, the Bon Vent Brass group, along with dozens of singers, dancers, and actors to round out the cast. The Washington Revels have truly pulled off an impressive feat with their French-Canadian Winter Celebration.

Ryan Maxwell Photography

Set and Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills sets the scene: We begin in a birch-lined forest where our settlers have founded the village of Trois-Rivières at the place where three rivers meet. The plot progresses through a series of related scenes detailing the lives of the individuals in this village. Between each brief scene, the audience is treated to numerous musical offerings pulled from a repertoire of traditional Québécois music and dance. There is a participatory aspect to this production in which the audience is encouraged to sing and dance along to well-known carols and tunes such as “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Dona Nobis Pacem,” and “Alouette.”

While each number is buffeted by the skill of the singers and musicians accompanying, the first stand-out number was “Outaouis Medley,” which showcased the dance skills of Pierre Chartrand, Shannon Dunne, and Leah Silverman. The dance in this production is presented in a folk style that is somewhere between clogging and tap. It’s difficult not to move with the rhythm when the dancer’s shoes tap against the wooden stage floor.

Cutting Edge Sword makes a fabulous cameo in “Rapper Sword Dance.” The audience was rapt as the dancers used their steel “swords” to weave in and out of the group. Complex choreography married with showmanship in this number to create a spectacle that you won’t soon forget. The finale of this piece is stunning and must be seen to be believed.

Ryan Maxwell Photography

The beautiful “Dans Les Prisons de Nantes” is a somber tune from seventeenth-century France led by Chris Lewis, Matthew Ambler, and Melisande. The thorough program notes are to be commended. They leave out no historical detail. Even if you don’t speak French, you are never left without context. This number is described as a narrative folk song that tells the story of a jailer’s daughter who has fallen in love with prisoner in Nantes.

While most of the material is Québécois by design, we are treated to a rousing participatory round of “The Lord of the Dance” at the end of the first act. The second act presents a visual feast as the men of the town become “voyageurs” who have gone to find their fortune while running into Native Americans and a top-hatted le Diable, played by Ted Hodapp. The voyageurs make a bargain with le Diable to be able to visit their families on New Year’s Eve and their canoe flies through the night, accompanied by the cast singing traditional songs. The Christmas Revels reveals why it is one of the foremost holiday productions in D.C. through this delightfully complex flight through the forest back to Trois-Rivières.

Ryan Maxwell Photography

“Le Réveillon du Jour de L’an” proceeds with rousing step dance and boisterous singing to ring in the New Year. The party continues with “Petit-Jean et le Loup-Garou,” a play-within-a-play that ends with Pierre Chartrand’s townsman participating in a dance competition against Ted Hodapp’s le Diable to save the souls of the wayward voyageurs. The choreography is truly a gift to fans of folk dance and both participants shine in this sequence.

By the time the production ends with “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” you will be overwhelmed with the talent and range of material presented by A French-Canadian Winter Celebration. Anyone with an interest in folk music and dance should not miss this production. It is a special treat for those of us with French ancestry and for those who are unfamiliar with French-Canadian traditions. The Christmas Revels: A French-Canadian Winter Celebration is a dazzling, toe-tapping delight- an absolute must-see in D.C. this holiday season.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

The Christmas Revels: A French-Canadian Winter Celebration, presented by the Washington Revels, plays through December 17, 2017, at the GW Lisner Auditorium- 730 21 Street NW, in Washington, D.C. Tickets can be purchased online.

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