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Holiday cheer in full voice at Christmas Revels

A love of singing. A delight in odd traditions. A willingness to work hard and look a little silly.

There are many characteristics that motivate a person to perform in the Christmas Revels, the annual folk-based show that is created every year at the Rialto in Tacoma and across the nation. But what sets the Revels apart from most other stage shows is, in fact, the broad spectrum of ordinary, local folk who come back year after year — and even during the year — to be a part of this effort.

Adam Furman, 10 Fifth grader Singer in children’s chorus

You wouldn’t get many 10-yearold boys willing to hold hands and skip with a bunch of girls while singing a Christmas carol, but Adam Furman is one of them. One of four, to be precise, who are galloping around a rehearsal room as part of the 17-member Revels children’s chorus.

As the kids belt out “Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,” Adam is singing confidently, while checking out his comrades from side to side, just in case.

“It’s perfect – I love performing on stage,” exclaims Adam during a break. “I like the experience of it all. And you get to stay up late.”

This is Adam’s second year as a Reveller, and he does have that shining delight kids get when they’re doing something they love. As the chorus moves into “Long Live Britannia” with more-or-less cockney accents, Adam been chosen to shout out a solo “Come on!” which he does with glee. With blond hair and an angelic face, he makes a perfect Oliver Twist for this year’s production of a Victorian English Christmas.

Unlike a lot of stage shows, children are important in the Revels. The shows, performed by amateurs in 10 cities across the nation, are all about tradition – recreating a place (usually European or North American) and time (usually more than 100 years ago) through folk songs, dances, period costumes and a vague plot. It’s like a window into a long-age village, so naturally the idea is to include a wide range of characters. The Puget Sound Revels children’s chorus is usually on stage for about half the show, coming on and off for solo and mixed songs and taking a real part in the action. After they come off stage, they head upstairs to their own green room to play board games and Nintendo DS, still sporting medieval tunics or skirts.

Of course, this all requires a lot of work from parents and kids alike. Rehearsals start in September and continue once or twice a week, ramping up to a week of fourhour tech rehearsals before opening night. Kids stay up past 11 p.m., parents are expected to volunteer to keep order in the green room, and other activities often have to be put on hold. For Adam – a homeschooler who plays violin and loves learning computer programs – this meant postponing orchestra and slotting in swim team practice. Is it too much?

“It’s a commitment,” he acknowledges. “But it’s better to have too much than too little and not get it right.”

There’s also a lot of work for children’s chorus director Robin Strong.

“Some years it’s more of a challenge,” she says of past shows that have included songs in Russian, Polish, Quebecois and more. “At least this year’s almost all in English. But this year they really know their stuff. ... They have a great sound.”

Julia Collier, 14 Ninth grader - Backstage assistant

Whi e Revels rehearsals are still happening in a downtown church basement, there’s not much for Julia Collier to do besides take notes and help out director B.J. Douglas and stage manager Carmen Metler. Once everyone’s in the theater, though, it’s a different story.

“I basically take orders from BJ and Carmen, then give orders to everyone else,” Julia says, grinning. The teenager has been working at Revels for three years now as backstage assistant, a job she was offered when she didn’t get into the children’s chorus. While Metler and her colleagues handle the big backstage stuff, Julia reigns supreme over everything else: summoning performers to the stage, taking charge of the many props, endlessly checking lists, helping with quick costume changes, and keeping the children quiet as they wait for their entrances. “It’s fun,” says Julia, tossing her curly brown hair. “You get to give orders to people twice your age and they do it.”

It’s a job that comes fairly naturally to any teenager with a normal helping of bossiness, but Julia revels in it. For the five theater rehearsals and six performances, she strides around backstage arranging swords in perfect order and shushing kids like a stern governess. Organized and independent, she’s good at the job, but as an aspiring singer (she’s auditioning for School of the Arts next year) she’s also got the artistic passion that sees her through night after night of hard work.

“It’s challenging, making sure everyone listens and keeping people quiet. It was a little hard at the beginning.” She also has to stand in for any key missing cast members, and usually knows the script by heart by the end.

Does she want to try out for the adult chorus when she’s old enough?

“Maybe. ... I kind of want to be on stage,” she says. “But I like not having the stress of learning everything. And backstage, you hear all the inside jokes. I know everything about everyone.”

Megan Oberfeld, 42 - Musician and teacher - Revels music director

When Megan Oberfeld raises her voice, the whole theater listens. The petite, red-headed music director with a sparkling soprano is the person responsible for how Revels sounds: She arranges music, auditions chorus members, leads the chorus on stage and in rehearsal, sings solos and gets crowded Rialto audiences singing “Dona Nobis Pacem” in perfect three-part harmony. Her attention-getting ability is astounding.

Except tonight. This is the pianist’s first rehearsal, and while Oberfeld valiantly sasses her way through her music hall solo, the pianist keeps chiming in on the wrong chord. Finally, exasperation all over her face, Oberfeld strides over to sort things out.

It’s all part of the job, of course. Oberfeld is one of the limited number of paid professionals in Revels – the rest being executive director Mary Lynn, director B.J. Douglas, the children’s chorus director, the lighting, set and stage directors and managers, and any hired musicians such as Seattle Brass. Still, Revels is a lot of work, even if you’re paid. Oberfeld begins in February with a national retreat to plan shows with Lynn and Douglas, followed by a summer’s worth of researching and arranging any extra music for the nationally shared Revels scripts. During the year, she leads other Revels events like the Maritime Festival and Tacoma Sings, and begins bi-weekly show rehearsals in September.

Back at Tuesday’s rehearsal, Oberfeld’s dealt with the accompanist and is guiding the 37 chorus members through their carols, vaudeville and folk songs, correcting cockney accents and writing everything down in a little black book.

“Revels is extremely rewarding,” says Oberfeld, who holds down two school music jobs besides directing vocal and handbell choirs, teaching privately and singing. “That kind of ‘communal effervescence ,’ that’s very important to me. The kind of Revels people that, after dinner, don’t turn on the TV but sing a song, that’s important: It takes you out of passivity and into community. I like the family aspect, kids growing up in Revels and an ever-expanding circle.”

Is it frustrating, getting amateurs to a stage-production level?

“No,” says Oberfeld. “It’s important to know your people and what they can do. Revels is a village – not everyone is an opera or chorus singer. I don’t audition for that. I want a variety of tone colors and personalities.”

A variety there certainly is: Most years, Revels choruses have members from ages 6 to 66, of all body types and characters. There are school-kids, architects, doctors, teachers. There are seasoned singers and people who can’t read music. There are people who love sewing and gardening, and people who love quantum physics. But they all have a few defining characteristics.

“These are people who aren’t afraid to burst into song,” says Oberfeld smiling. Add to that: not being afraid to look a little silly. They wear tights, don an egg-carton dragon costume or do pratfalls on stage, for instance. They’re people who are willing to spend half the year working hard. Mostly, they’re people that like being with others.

“It’s definitely a big community,” Oberfeld says, “an extended family that goes on and on and on.”

Darby Veeck, 40 Physicist and environmental engineer Dragon, broomstick dancer and men’s chorus

Daby Veeck is doing pretty well for a man who says he can’t sing or act. Part of the men’s chorus, he doubles as a ham-it-up dragon in the mummers’ play (a short traditional skit that always appears in Revels shows) and a dancer in a couple of other scenes. And he’s the epitome of the joyous fun everyone seems to have in the Revels show.

“I’d seen the show a few years ago and loved the Christmas cheer and traditions,” Veeck says. “So I offered that if they ever needed someone who couldn’t sing or act, I was their man.”

What Veeck could do, though, was move. A former college basketball player, he stands 6 foot 5 inches, poker thin – perfect for the mime character of Death in last year’s show. The audience loved him, and he was hooked.

As the Tuesday rehearsal winds on, Veeck moves easily around the stage, joking with everyone he sees. During the singing, he grins nervously and watches others, but his baritone blends right in.

“He can sing just fine, but he’s outside of his comfort zone,” says Megan Oberfeld. “But the energy he brings to the show is totally worth it.”

Heather Urschel is a longtime chorus member who agrees: “I’ve never seen anyone have so much fun in my whole life,” she says.

At the back of the room, Veeck is dressed as a chimney sweep. Two shorter sweeps do a show-off dance with broomsticks, and suddenly the gangly Veeck saunters up, nods, and does a sprightly can-can over his own with John Cleese comedy. Two minutes later, he’s hamming it up as the vanquished dragon.

Even more than performing, what Veeck likes about Revels is watching the show take shape. An environmental engineer and physicist who does marathons and Iron Man competitions in his spare time, Veeck spends his rehearsals watching the directors do their work.

“Seeing all the little bits come together – that’s fascinating,” he says. Bob Matthews, 63 - Professor of Mathematics - Fezziwig, Men’s chorus

As the characters ebb and flow around the Revels stage, white - haired Bob Matthews perches on a stool and smiles. He’s been doing Revels since it began in 1994, taking numerous solo parts, and now, post knee-surgery, he’s content to be in the chorus. His light tenor echoes through the songs, most of which he knows well through previous performances.

“It’s so much fun, though it’s a lot of hard work,” says Matthews in his quiet, precise voice. “I get to sing. I get to learn about theater. And I really like working with my fellow singers.”

A math professor who “dabbles” in violin and just started beekeeping, Matthews is another Reveller who seems to embody the show’s spirit. Portly, with a round face, glasses and a cane, he’s perfect for the small role of Fezziwig – the generous employer in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” which this year’s Revels includes in miniature.

Matthews is frequently early to rehearsal (“I’m in deadly fear of Carmen,”) sits reading an academic paper or book, and chats happily with the rest of the cast, who all know him. On stage, he’s the ideal King or ancient sage. “There’s something really rewarding in doing a really good job in front of an audience and feeling their enjoyment. I could see how that could be addictive.”

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