Appalachia in 1922 provided the setting for this fifth Santa Barbara edition of The Christmas Revels. As the plural in the title suggests, the revels are multiple. The show is at once a polished professional performance grounded in painstaking research and a broad-based community celebration that welcomes participants of all ages. It’s bound together by a shared desire to experience authentic folk traditions associated with Christmas and other celebrations of the winter solstice. By setting this show in the American South of the early 20th century, the group gained access to a fascinating collection of songs, dances, stories, and games. The range in this production stretches from African-American spirituals like “Go Tell It on the Mountain” to circle dances, shape-note hymns, clogging, and even an audience-participation version of the body-percussion business known as hambone.
Many familiar faces were involved, including Ken Ryals, Susan Keller, Diane Stevenett, and Matt Tavianini. Henry Brown did a splendid job in the role of Cecil B. Johnson, the government song collector whose arrival sets the show in motion. As Jack, the wisecracking villager who shows Johnson around, Tavianini played the wise fool role with gusto. There were not only songs but also some great games and dances for the Yuletide Children’s Chorus, which was coached by Emily Jewell. They performed the Appalachian “play-party game” called “Here Comes Zodiac,” they acted out the scary and comical West Virginia ghost story read by Robby Robbins and Meredith McMinn, and they played at “Nickety Nackety,” a traditional patty-cake song. The costumes, in keeping with the strict Christian ways of the setting, were conservative, with women and girls in long skirts, smocks, and work aprons and the men and boys in suits or overalls, depending on their occupation.
The more than 20 members of the choir of Solstice Singers did a wonderful job not only presenting the tricky rounds on many of the pieces but also handling many shape-note numbers, including one written just recently by composer Seth Houston called “Emerald Stream.” Revels would be incomplete without a mummers’ play, and this season’s choice, “John Barleycorn,” excelled in delivering the core elements of a good mum — the goofy hero died and was brought back to life, there was a quack doctor in attendance (played by Yvonne Bazinet), and everyone involved got to make at least one moderately silly speech. There was even a pantomime horse onstage. Tavianini made a good slapstick showing as J.B., and Chuck Champlin, Charissa Hamel, McMinn, and Rob Brown all contributed to the merriment, as did Liliana Johnston and Liza Borghesani, the two halves of the pantomime horse.
But the most memorable moments of this Revels involved the children, who did an outstanding job and seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly. On a number like “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” which they performed with Diva Johnson as Clara and the Smokey Mountain Strummers, they filled the stage to overflowing with their enthusiasm and charm — a moving image of the holiday promise of bliss fulfilled.