Holidays in Washington: Annual Revels show evokes historic Quebec village

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The 2008 rendition of The Christmas Revels also focused on French-Canadian culture. (photo courtesy of the Washington Revels)
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This year’s Christmas Revels production will take audience members to a holiday celebration in a small Quebec village, complete with French-Canadian folk music and dancing styles from the 19th century.

The 35th annual Christmas show — which opens Saturday — centers around the travels of five voyagers leaving their Quebec town, their adventures on a magic flying canoe and their hopes of making it back to the village in time to celebrate the holidays. As the story unfolds, the audience will learn about French settlers in Canada during the time period, along with the traditions created in the New World when mixed with those of their British counterparts.

“You get this window on a culture, and that’s very meaningful to the audience,” said Greg Lewis, the Washington Revels’ executive director and a performer in the show at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.

The show’s music includes songs in French and in English, giving audience members the chance to sing along with the traditional tunes and dance to the music of brass instruments, flutes, a violin and an accordion. Cast members dance through the aisles as well as on the stage, clapping and tapping their feet as they go.

Lewis said he made audience participation a priority when organizing the show. Featuring a conductor who faces the crowd, the show will include call-and-response music, which allows audience members to repeat lines being sung by cast members. They can also follow along with the lyrics printed in the program.

He added that part of the “magic” of the show is the educational aspect, which allows both the cast and audience to immerse themselves in the French culture and language. Even the roughly 20 children in the cast are taught to pronounce the lyrics and dialogue in French, Lewis said.

“We spend a tremendous amount of time on authenticity, whether it be on costumes, pronunciation, and a huge amount of time on learning languages, not to speak but to pronounce,” Lewis said.

The show is historically accurate in part because of Steve Winick, an eminent expert on Quebec culture and a lead actor and singer in the production. Winick works in the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, and performed in 2008, the last time the Christmas Revels offered a version of the Quebec-themed show.

Winick was introduced to the Washington Revels when the show’s organizers visited the Library of Congress for research into the authentic songs from the period, he said. He landed the leading role after he sang one of the folk tunes he didn’t have a recording for — impressing the Revels organizers both with his musical abilities and his knowledge on the topic.

The show’s main characters represent a historically significant element of Quebec culture, Winick said, as voyagers who traveled to sell furs to Native Americans comprised an important occupation during the time period.

The show will include singing from adult, teen and children’s choirs, bringing together more than 100 singers, dancers and actors in the cast, ranging in age from 8 to 80 years old.

Step-dancer Pierre Chartrand is returning for this year’s performances, which begin Saturday at the Lisner Auditorium. (photo courtesy of the Washington Revels)

Helen Fields, a chorus member in the show, will mark her 10th performance as a cast member for the Christmas Revels this year. She said she went to the show many times as a child, starting when she was in eighth grade, and has made attending the Christmas Revels’ annual show part of her family’s holiday celebration.

“It didn’t feel like Christmas until we saw the Christmas Revels,” she said of her family’s tradition. “That is what really started the season for my family.”

She said one main aspect that has drawn people annually to the Christmas Revels is the sense of community created by the audience participation. She calls the cast her personal “village,” which includes cast members who have been performing in the show since it began in D.C. in 1983.

Fields added that organizers assign cast members stage “families” — she has a stage husband and two children — that strengthens the sense of community among the cast members. The families stand together in group scenes, making it easier for the directors to instruct the cast.

Fields said her favorite scene is called “Chasse Gallerie,” which features the voyagers coming home on a magical canoe and the villagers swirling onto the stage holding food plates and stage houses.

“It’s fun to tell this story and create this experience for the audience,” Fields said. “It feels like inviting an audience to be part of the village.”

The Quebec government and local French cultural organizations have enthusiastically promoted this year’s show using their social media pages and other methods, said Jo Rasi, the marketing and programs director for the Washington Revels.

But Rasi also expects a good number of annual attendees alongside any first-timers among the nearly 1,500 people expected during each performance of the show.

“We have families that make this their holiday tradition every year,” she said. “Nobody seems to get tired of the Revels celebration.”

The show will be running from Dec. 9 through 17 for a total of eight performances at Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. Tickets range from $12 to $50. For details, visit revelsdc.org.