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Move over, Radio City Rockettes. A holiday spectacular-spectacular all its own is now showing at the George Washington Lisner Auditorium, and through sheer cast size alone, this holly-jolly extravaganza has the Rockettes dashing off in a one-horse open sleigh.
The Christmas Revels is the annual holiday blowout presented by The Washington Revels, a local group dedicated to performing traditional music, dance and stories, all year long.
"Last year we did a total of 55 different programs," says executive Greg Lewis, "of which The Christmas Revels, albeit our biggest, was just one."
The Washington Revels are among ten nonprofit, independent Revels organizations across the country. And of all the professional and nonprofessional singers, actors, musicians and dancers involved here in D.C., Lewis says he probably goes back the furthest.
So far back, in fact, that he can remember Washington's very first Christmas Revels, in 1983. Unlike the 2012 incarnation — 2.5-hour extravaganza with 100 performers, dazzling costumes and a splashy, multi-story set — the original production was far simpler.
"We had a bunch of trees dotting around [the stage]," Lewis says. "And the director said, 'Just don't stand behind a tree.' And that was it. Blocking notes didn't exist! It was just 'don't stand behind a tree!'"
Every Christmas Revels has a particular theme. And back in 1983, that theme was medieval English. Lewis says they've done English at least half-a-dozen times since then. But they've also branched out to early American, Italian, French, even Russian, Scandinavian and French-Canadian.
This year the Washington Revels revisit their 1984 theme: Haddon Hall, one of England's oldest and most romantic manor houses.
The year is 1929, and on a dark and snowy solstice eve, the 9th Duke of Rutland brings his wife and children to his long-abandoned family home, with plans of selling it to make way for a new road.
But what they soon learn is Haddon Hall isn't abandoned at all: each winter solstice, spirits of Haddon Hall's former residents appear, to make merry on this shortest day of the year. The Duke first chastises them for trespassing on his property, but after dancing and singing with these cheery ghosts all night, our Scrooge-like Duke ditches the bah-humbug, and decides to save Haddon Hall.
Now, lest you think this story sounds like mere visions of sugarplums, executive director Greg Lewis says... think again.
"The story that was portrayed is true — the 9th Duke of Rutland — was going to take it down, and there was going to be a motorway. And we're not exactly sure that it was Revels ghosts that persuaded him otherwise, but we think it makes a nicer story!"
"We," in this case, is Lewis and his fellow Revels directors, Roberta Gasbarre (artistic director/stage director) and Elizabeth Miller (music director). Gasparre joined the group in 1991, Miller in 1993. And while long-timer Greg Lewis still has her beat, Miller says she's been around long enough to get a powerful sense of the Revels' continuity.
"We get assigned stage families," Miller says. "And in one of my early Revels shows, my child/daughter that year, Rhianna Nissen, is, this year, my assistant music director. So I've had her start from a child, and now she's sort of graduated to the production level!"
And she's not alone, says Roberta Gasbarre.
"We have a little saying that says, 'Once a Reveler, always a Reveler,'" Gasbarre explains. "And we consider that for the audience as well. They are a vital part of the show. It's exciting to see them all singing and dancing in the aisles!"
Indeed, if you think watching 100 people singing and dancing on stage is a spectacle, imagine more than 1,000 people doing the same thing in the audience! Audience members leap in and out of their seats during "The Twelve Days of Christmas," and during the Act One finale, "The Lord of the Dance," they join hands and snake through the aisles.
"And the fun is when people who first came, they brought their children," Greg Lewis says. "Now their children are bringing their children. And oftentimes we'll have four generations in the audience. I don't think we've ever hit five, but we've had a good number of fours!
And if the Washington Revels keep on keepin' on for another 30 years, who knows? It may just be a matter of time.
[Music: "The Lord of the Dance" by Sydney Carter, performed by The Washington Revels Company and The Washington Revel Brass]