CAMBRIDGE — This year’s edition of “The Christmas Revels” forgoes the usual cozy holiday comforts. For “An Irish Celebration of the Winter Solstice” at Sanders Theatre, Revels artistic director Patrick Swanson has bundled the Young Rakes, the Young Blades, the Rattling Brogues, the Wild Geese Chorus and Dancers, the White Star Rhymers, the Pinewoods Morris Men, the Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble, and, oh yes, members of the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance onto the R.M.S. “Carpathia.” It’s 1907, and the Cunard liner is bound from Liverpool to New York. Scrap the lighting of the Christmas tree; cue the blast of the ship’s horn as Lady Liberty comes into view.
This isn’t a bad idea. Midwinter, as the days start to become longer, is a time of beginnings, and these Irish emigrants — in headscarves and scally caps and more plaid than I would have expected — are embarking on a new life in America while looking nostalgically back, as emigrants do, at the world they’re leaving behind. Jeremy Barnett’s set is austere by Revels standards: a deck — presumably steerage — on the “Carpathia,” with a pair of gangways and a pair of lifeboats, all in rust red, marine blue, and dingy white. The lone concession to the season is a pair of evergreen wreaths.
The story line is minimal. Billy Meleady plays a passenger who rushes up the gangplank at the last second, giving his surname to the purser (Steven Barkhimer) as “Ireland,” his occupation as “poet,” and his destination as “the New World.” Mary Casey plays a woman who tells Meleady she’s lost her husband and children, then kisses him on the cheek. Is romance in the air? Alas, no.
The evening begins with the usual overture by Revels music director George Emlen, this one inspired by “The Wexford Carol.” That carol is sung, and later there are two more from Wexford, “Ye Sons of Men, With Me Rejoice” and “The Darkest Midnight in December.” The purser, it turns out, is Welsh; Barkhimer sings a bit of “Nos Galan” and then the audience joins in on the English version, “Deck the Hall.” (Later it’ll get to sing the chorus of “The Rocky Road to Dublin.”) In “The Wren in the Furze,” the Young Rakes — that is, the Revels children — describe the mysterious St. Stephen’s Day ritual of hunting the wren.
Mostly, though, this “Irish Celebration of the Winter Solstice” is “just” a rewarding celebration of Irish singing, dancing, and storytelling. In “The Soul Cages,” Jack (Meleady) meets a creature called Coomara (Barkhimer) who sports blond locks, an eyepatch, fins, and wears a tricorner. Coomara invites Jack to dine undersea; Jack has a fine time, but he’s troubled to see the souls of drowned sailors that Coomara has imprisoned in cages. Later he invites Coomara to dinner topside, gets him drunk on poteen, and goes back down under and frees the souls.
Musical highlights include Casey in her vocal solo on “Colcannon,” harpist Maeve Gilchrist in the slow Turlough O’Carolan air “Sidhe Bheag, Sidhe Mhór,” and uilleann piper Paddy Keenan on his own slow air “Johnny’s Tune.” Meleady and Barkhimer are enjoyable throughout. There’s an invigorating Kerry polka set from the Wild Geese Dancers and superb quicksilver stepdancing — both soft shoe and hard — from the O’Shea-Chaplin students. The annual mummers’ play is performed in straw costumes inspired by the Armagh Rhymers. It’s all enough to make you want to fly over to Liverpool and come back on the boat with these folks.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.