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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 7:26 am | Fair 47º


Review: ‘The Christmas Revels’ Revels in Holiday Tradition

Even the audience is brought in on the act, adding to a truly merry experience all around

In its fourth year, the Santa Barbara Revels’ The Christmas Revels, founded and produced by Susan Keller, is quickly becoming a new local tradition. A re-creation of English winter solstice celebrations of long ago, with songs, dances and audience participation, Revels is a hybrid of performance, ritual and celebration.

This year, for the first time, we reveled at the Lobero Theatre. For the past two years, the show was presented at the Marjorie Luke Theatre, and the inaugural Revels was a brief sampling held in the courtyard of Casa de la Guerra. Santa Barbara’s is the newest of 10 Revels companies in the country who stage a variety of festivities each year, with The Christmas Revels the centerpiece.

Departing from the medieval theme used in the past, this year’s Revels offering was subtitled, “A Victorian Celebration of the Winter Solstice.” Thus, a new energy and spirit were interwoven with the ancient medieval traditions: the hanging of evergreens, the mummers’ play of St. George and the dragon, and the Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance, an ancient ritual to bring luck to the hunt, were included to illustrate the Victorians’ striving to bring back the old customs to their quickly industrializing and urbanizing lifestyle.

Stage director Maggie Mixsell was the first to join the Revels and has been part of all the productions. Music director Steven Hodson joined the company this year. Both seem to have found their niches in this family like company. Pam McLendon directed the children’s chorus, and Kira Jones Gold was the costume director. All are to be commended for their parts in pulling together this elaborately staged and costumed production.

Returning this year were the two leads, Ken Ryals and Diane Stevenett, who in past years portrayed the medieval royal couple, but now embraced the roles of kingly man-about-town Thaddeus Hatcher and queen of the music hall Vesta Victoria. Both have engaging stage presence and strong singing voices, and provided firm anchor for this large and varied cast. Stevenett sang “Don’t Have Any More, Mrs. Moore,” with requisite ribaldry and gathered all the ladies together for “A Lesson with the Fan” to teach them the art of the coquette.

Veteran actor, storyteller and physical comedian Matt Tavianini joined in the fun in the role of Cockney trickster and “fool” Henry Croft. Tavianini is always a joy to watch, and here he brought his signature spirit and physicality, demonstrating the Comberton Broom Dance along with young Parker Matthews, sharing examples of Cockney rhyming slang (pig’s ear equals beer) and trading quips with Vesta such as: “I met a man at the pub just now, and he said you weren’t fit to associate with pigs! But I stuck up fer ya.” Tavianini says, “He said I weren’t fit to associate with pigs did he? An’ what did you say?” Vesta says, “I said you were!” He also acted the title role in Ryals’ melodramatic reading of “The Sad, Sorry and Tragic Tale of Jacob Marley” with befitting angst.

Emily Jewell returned as the fourth corner of this sturdy framework — Melissa, the brash and beautiful weaver and denizen of the streets. She led the other women dancers in “Mill Girls Northwest Clog Dance” and sang, along with Alissa Jewell and Natascha Skerczak, “Four Loom Weaver,” a somber ballad often thought to be one of the earliest industrial protest songs. Jewell has a bell-like singing voice with a sparkling presence, and the Revels will do well to continue to make use of her and Tavianini’s talents.

The supporting cast was solid, and the songs and dances they presented rousing and satisfying. As they have done each year, members of the Pacific Sword Company performed their ancient sword dance as part of the mummers’ play, and some of its members returned for a traditional Schottische dance.

While there were many opportunities for the audience to sing along with the performers, with lyrics printed in their programs, there was none as much fun for all as “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” with audience members brought on stage to represent each. Ryals was in his element here as gracious and humorous master of ceremonies, organizing the teeming throng on stage into 12 groups and working with them to develop an appropriate gesture to demonstrate each of the days. The woman who squatted to pantomime “geese a-laying” while her husband held his waiting hands below her posterior brought the house down each time they did it.

And when those still in our seats were invited to stand and sing it, with all the accompanying gestures, I don’t think there was a face in the house that wasn’t split into a huge grin. The spirit of community and general merriment pervaded the entire space, embodying the Revels’ unofficial motto: “Join us and be joyous!”

— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.

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