In 2008, Santa Barbara joined the handful of cities across the nation to present an annual Revels show in celebration of the Winter Solstice. With scripts provided by the central Revels organization, the Santa Barbara company has up until now performed Revels set only in Europe, including Renaissance, Medieval and Victorian England, and 19th Century Bavaria. But this year, Revels has come home.
Founder and Artistic Director Susan Keller explains how this came about.
“This show came from a concept that Stage Director Maggie Mixsell, Music Director Ken Ryals and I had to create a setting in which to present the wonderful Appalachian material that has been done in various versions by other Revels companies,” she said. “So we came up with the Songcatcher idea, loosely basing this on the work of Cecil Sharpe and John Jacob Niles, who went to the South in the early part of the 20th century to record and collect songs in their original forms.
“This is really gorgeous music — spirituals, shape note singing and folk songs in the pure forms in which they were brought to this country several centuries ago, preserved through the isolation of these remote mountain hamlets.”
The Songcatcher, accomplished local actor Henry Brown in his first Revels show, encounters Jack, a local character, who — for a price — will take him to the places where the music can be found: a camp meeting, a church service, a village holiday celebration.
“Matt Tavianini plays the role of Jack, and it’s great to have him in Revels for a third year,” Keller said. “He’s such an inventive, physical performer, and he really brings a lot to the part.”
Tavianini said he was up for something new.
“The relaxed pace of life of this remote community and the innocent friendliness of the townspeople, with no technology invading their lives, is so different from our modern world,” he said. “This presents a dramatic challenge for the actors in embodying their roles. Also, the traditional Appalachian dances were new to a lot of the performers so learning them presented us with some great opportunities to learn about this way of life.”
For the first time, the company has brought in some specialty dancers for the Appalachian style known as clogging.
“Ruth Alpert is a local clogger with a wonderful, loose and graceful style,” Keller said. “Robert Altman comes from Long Beach. He is wildly energetic and great fun to watch.”
Returning cast member Robby Robbins, originally from Eastern Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest mountain region, has helped out with some dialect coaching.
“It has been great sharing my heritage and the dialect that is so unique to that region with the production,” he said. “It is not that Forrest Gump drawl that most folks try to use. We drop Gs and draw out some words, but the accent can be clipped, almost an Elizabethan English sound.”
While the setting and style depart from past Revels, the elements common to all productions of The Christmas Revels have been retained: the Lord of the Dance, Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and Sussex Mummers’ Carol.
“We also will ask the audience to sing with us on several songs and rounds,” Keller said. “This is something everyone seems to look forward to doing, along with the dances in which they participate. Group singing and dancing are excellent ways to turn audience members into a community.”
Many of the performers found it challenging last year to sing in German.
“The first reaction of many of our singers this time was, ‘Oh, good, it’s in English!’” Keller said. “This allowed us to really concentrate on the vocal quality of the songs, to create opportunities for solos within the songs, to become familiar enough to sing much of the music a cappella, which is true to its origins, and to vary the combinations of the instrumentalists playing with us.
“It’s a very fulfilling show to do, and our choruses are having a terrific time. Everyone loves singing with Ken, and Emily Jewell has gotten fabulous results from her Children’s Chorus participants, all of whom adore her. As usual, Maggie has a wonderfully organic way of working with actors, and she brings out the best in our cast. She has given small roles to many people, so they relate to being part of a small Appalachian village, and everyone is enjoying that.”
Brown said: “This production projects warmth, camaraderie, a unity of spirit and holiday cheer. Revels is a somewhat rare occurrence in these days of red and blue states, race and gender issues, etc. It offers a less commercial, more spiritual message for the yuletide season, with a genuine hope that it continues through the oncoming year. That’s Americana, and it feels good!”
Performances of The Christmas Revels: In Celebration of the Winter Solstice will be held at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. this Saturday, Dec. 15, and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Lobero Theatre. Tickets are available through the Lobero box office at 805.963.0761 or online by clicking here.
— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.