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STAGE REVIEW

The ‘Christmas Revels’ celebrates a new direction

From left: William Forchion, Regie Gibson, and Mark Jaster perform a scene from the mummers play in "The Christmas Revels."Sheppard Ferguson

CAMBRIDGE — What was to have been the 50th annual “Christmas Revels” last year turned into “A Virtual Celebration” that recapitulated highlights from previous productions. This year, Revels returns live to Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, and it would appear that everything is back to normal. The 51st annual “Christmas Revels” (for which there will also be a streaming option) is set in the present day at the George and Dragon, a 400-year-old English pub famous for its annual Christmas carol party. What could be more Revels-like than a pub named for the protagonists of the production’s annual mummers’ play?

Yet this “Christmas Revels” is different. For one, it’s announced as running just 90 minutes with no intermission. COVID-19 has put a temporary end to the tradition in which audiences snake-danced out into the vestibule to “Lord of the Dance.” More significant, as artistic director Paddy Swanson explains in a program note, is that Revels is re-examining its own rituals with an eye to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” This year’s production, with Benny Sato Ambush as dramaturg, updates the mummers’ play and includes more contemporary music than we usually hear.

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"The Christmas Revels" ensemble at the Sanders Theatre.Sheppard Ferguson

One thing that never changes about “The Christmas Revels” is the excellence of Jeremy Barnett’s set. His pub is anchored by a cozy fireplace over which hangs a dragon’s head and a string of Christmas cards. A Red Sox pennant is in evidence. The bar, stage right, boasts a “You’ll Never Walk Alone” banner underneath which reads “This Is LFC Official Membership,” both references to Liverpool Football Club, which is owned by the same entity, Fenway Sports Group, that owns the Red Sox. Bass ale is on tap, a last-call bell and a tip jar sit on the counter, and there’s a dartboard at the back. The Pickled Eggs House Band, led by saxophonist Edmar Colón, is stage left, the area festooned with a Rolling Stones poster.

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The bad news is the George and Dragon was about to go under. The good news is it’s been saved by the new owners, an American couple. Joe (William Forchion) and Rita (Carolyn Saxon) have just gotten the carol singing started, and the Ha’Penny Wassail Children, who’re too young to be in the pub, have weighed in via Zoom, when a 17th-century Master of the Revels (Mark Jaster), his assistant Flunky (Sabrina Selma Mandell), and an Auditor (Regie Gibson) appear. It seems the George and Dragon was founded in 1621, and now the pub’s entertainment license is up for renewal. The criteria are, anachronistically, drawn from Susan Cooper’s 1977 poem “The Shortest Day” (which she wrote for Revels): “carol, feast, give thanks, dearly love their friends, and hope for peace.”

Carolyn Saxon and the cast of "The Christmas Revels."Sheppard Ferguson

A face-off follows. The 17th-century performers who’ve accompanied the Master of the Revels sing “As I Rode Out This Enderes Night” and “The Boar’s Head Carol” and dance to tunes by John Dowland and Anthony Holborne. The 21st-century George and Dragon regulars reply with contemporary numbers that include the Crazy 8z using pool cues in a hip-hop version of the longsword dance, a wrenching “Homeless Wassail” led by master of ceremonies David Coffin, and Saxon lighting up Sanders Theatre with Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me,” the Stevie Wonder song “Someday at Christmas,” and Edwin Hawkins’s gospel arrangement of “Oh Happy Day.”

There’s one last test for the George and Dragon: the mummers’ play. No points for guessing that it’s Saint George (Jaster) and the Dragon (Forchion) who square off. But in the 2021 version, co-authored by Gibson and drawing on a tradition that stretches from “Beowulf” to contemporary American Black communities, the fighters trade not blows but hilariously good-natured insults. When Saint George at last does fall, the Doctor (Mandell) resurrects him with what looks suspiciously like a vaccine injection.

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The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is absent from the 2021 “Christmas Revels,” but “Dona nobis pacem,” “The Shortest Day,” and “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol” are all in place. For “Lord of the Dance,” audience members are invited to stand, dance in place, and link pinky fingers if they choose.

All this is a lot to squeeze into 90 minutes. Friday’s opening night production ran closer to two hours. I for one had no complaints.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.

THE CHRISTMAS REVELS 2021: IN CELEBRATION OF THE WINTER SOLSTICE

Directed by Patrick Swanson. Music direction by George Emlen. Set by Jeremy C. Barnett. Costumes by Heidi Hermiller. Lighting by Jeff Adelberg. Sound by Bill Winn. Presented by Revels. At Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, through Dec. 29. $12-$100. Available virtually Dec. 30-Jan. 9. 617-496-2222, www.revels.org