Arts & Culture

Puget Sound Revels channels the chill harmonies and warm folk feel of old Scandinavia

The Puget Sound Revels in their 1997 production of a Scandinavian-set Christmas Revels, which will be reinvented this December in the Rialto Theater.
The Puget Sound Revels in their 1997 production of a Scandinavian-set Christmas Revels, which will be reinvented this December in the Rialto Theater. Courtesy

As the women in the Puget Sound Revels rehearsal add layer upon layer to their medieval harmonization of a Norwegian hymn, the atmosphere in the Rialto Theater gets chilly — in a good way. The harmony flows in and out of dissonance, and sparse open fifths sound like snow falling on a frozen lake — a quintessential Nordic sound. This year, the Revels takes its annual Christmas folk music show to medieval Scandinavia, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie “Frozen,” says director Mary Lynn.

“To me, ‘Frozen’ is just something my little granddaughter sings over and over,” says Lynn.

And the recent trend of Scandinavian choral music by local choirs such as Seattle Pro Music and the touring women’s choir Cantus, which recorded the ethereal soundtrack for the movie?

“I didn’t know about that at all,” says Lynn, smiling.

Clearly, this year’s Nordic Revels is not a jump-on-the-Frozen-bandwagon marketing ploy. In fact, says Lynn, it’s just about mixing things up. Last year’s Revels was set in the courts of Renaissance Italy, so for something completely different this year, they’re taking it to the ordinary folk of medieval Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark.

“All the Scandinavian countries get a moment,” Lynn says.

They all get a costume, too. Despite many Puget Sounders owning authentic Swedish bunads and the like, the production stays away from actual folk costumes. They’re just too expensive to make, and besides, says Lynn, “every little valley has its own costume, and we just can’t do that.”

But costumer Alex Lewington is outfitting the various stage “families” (chorus groups of adults and children) with costumes that take inspiration from various Nordic national styles.

“If you’re Icelandic, you’ll know that’s an Icelandic family on stage,” Lynn explains.

Each country gets a moment in song, as well. The plot (such as it is) is loosely based on the Finnish folk epic “The Kalevala,” and the story of the hero Väinämöinen’s quest to rescue the sun and the moon from the wicked witch Louhi. Accompanying that, however, are Danish motets, Swedish carols, Norwegian folk dances, Latin carols from the 16th century Finnish church compilation “Piae Canciones,” Finnish dances and drinking songs from just about everywhere.

The children’s chorus performs a Sankta Lucia procession and carol, the women sing Swedish herding calls, clear and bright between balcony and stage. There’s a folk band featuring hardanger fiddle (Bill Boyd) and nyckelharpa (Leslie Foley), as well as regular fiddle and accordion. There’s even a mummer’s play — an English tradition, but this year including a troll and the comic song “O Lutefisk.”

There are also the usual Revels numbers, such as “Lord of the Dance,” encircling the Rialto’s aisles with dancing audience members, audience songs such as “Silent Night” (don’t worry, it’s in English) and Seattle Brass rounding out the final Sussex Mummers Carol.

10-foot stag puppet among the props

But the showpiece item is the stag. A 10-foot puppet made of willow twigs and burlap, it’s worn by actor Darby Veeck, himself a whopping 6-foot-5. To the sweet, double-string sounds of the hardanger fiddle, Veeck steps delicately across the stage, followed (naturally) by the traditional Abbots Bromley, where around 10 men wearing antlers traipse silently and mysteriously in formation to the silvery lilt of the nyckelharpa.

“You can see right through the stag frame to my head,” says Veeck, who also plays the witch Louhi, wearing a variety of costumes as the witch changes shape. “It’ll be interesting as to whether the audience watches the human or the stag head.”

The interplay between the mythic and the real, between fairy tales and folk songs, is just as much a part of this year’s Nordic Revels as the cool harmonies and bright costumes.

And even though nobody chose it to reference a certain Nordic-based Disney movie, it seems to be resonating with Tacoma audiences.

“Ticket sales are better than ever before,” says Lynn, who keeps track year to year. “We’ve almost sold out of the matinees.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

The Christmas Revels

When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and 2 p.m. Wednesday.

Where: Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., Tacoma.

Tickets: $12-$34.

Information: 253-591-5894, broadwaycenter.org, pugetsoundrevels.org.

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