Garden Theatre’s newest show whisks audiences back to a time of family, faith and tradition

‘Moonshine & Mistletoe: An Appalachian Christmas Tale’ will run through Dec. 23, at the Garden Theatre.

The production requires its actors to also play musical insturments and accompany themselves throughout the story.
The production requires its actors to also play musical insturments and accompany themselves throughout the story.
Courtesy photo
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West Orange County residents are experiencing the joy of a traditional Appalachian Christmas tale with the production of “Moonshine & Mistletoe” running through Dec. 23, at the Garden Theatre in downtown Winter Garden. 

Rated G and suitable for the whole family, the show is presented by Garden Theatre and produced by Victory Productions and Jessica Huckabey Theatricals, with the book by DJ Salisbury and arrangements by Larry Moore.

In the show, the Ballards — Lessy Boy and Curleen — welcome family and friends into their Appalachian mountain home to celebrate Christmas. In the midst of the Great Depression, they have no gifts to exchange, but instead, they share their love of Appalachian hymns and carols. Unexpectedly, the Ballard’s son, who had left the fold to escape a certain fate in the coal mines, returns to make amends with his parents. With him is his soon-to-be-a-mother wife. Although Curleen seems incapable of negotiating a peaceful reconciliation with her son, a Christmas miracle opens up a new possibility of forgiveness. 

“Part of the ‘why’ when I was writing this piece is that I grew up in eastern Kentucky, and I think it’s sort of a unique place in America and in the world with how music is woven into the heritage and culture,” Salisbury said. “I wanted to bring the kind of music that was essentially ‘stuck in the hills’ to a broader public, because it’s beautiful stuff. The show encompasses mainly authentic hymns, carols and comedy songs from Appalachia. The three songs I wrote just to augment the score so that I could keep it authentic to the time and place. … It was a real labor of love. Bringing these kinds of not-often-heard songs to the broader public was really one of the big goals, in addition to wanting to highlight and celebrate American Christmas traditions.”

The musical premiered Nov. 24 at the Garden Theatre.
Courtesy photo


“‘Moonshine & Mistletoe: An Appalachian Christmas Tale’ was pitched as an original holiday musical with a unique approach of actors who sing, dance and play instruments while telling this heartwarming tale,” Garden Theatre COO Keith Davenport said. “This delivery approach was yet to be seen on the Garden Theatre stage at this level, and we, along with producing partner Victory Productions, wanted to give that offering to patrons and the Winter Garden community for the holiday.”

Salisbury has had the piece for about a decade and did one developmental production as a test. Although the show did well and spawned a cast album featuring Broadway performers, the show was never picked up — until recently.

“You write what you write because you have a push to write it,” he said. “That never really, usually, has anything to do with whether it will be produced. We make what we make because we’re artists. We’re pushed to create. For me, the opportunity to have something produced is wonderful and rare. I’ve had things produced, and I’m very grateful for the things that have been produced, but there are just as many projects that haven’t yet been produced because you’re always, as a creative artist, waiting for somebody to say, ‘Yes.’ It was so fast and unexpected — but also so wonderful. I’m just grateful they said, ‘Yes.’”

Salisbury said seeing characters who reflect the people he grew up with come to life was his favorite part in producing the show.

“They’re based upon real people, with real wants and needs and real love for (one another),” he said. “Seeing these actors deliver that family warmth and the connection they all have is something so special. … I look to create material that is about connecting people, and I think that’s what theater does so brilliantly.”

Kamilah Lay, 26, plays the character of Dovey, the unmarried daughter of the Ballard family. At 24, she is considered an “old maid.”

“I got to create Dovey almost entirely from scratch using the beautiful script written by our director, DJ Salisbury, as a guide,” she said. “The biggest challenge, initially, was finding motivation for why Dovey makes a lot of decisions she does in the show. Just from reading the script to myself, it was difficult to figure out why exactly Dovey would be single and so hopeless in love, but through playing with the text and interacting with the other actors throughout our creative process, I was able to discover what a humongous dork Dovey is, which happens to be my favorite part about her. Unlike many of the female characters we see presented in stories that take place in the 1930s and 1940s, the Ballard women are strong, opinionated and not afraid to be themselves, and Dovey is no exception. She is excitable, loves her family deeply and cannot help but dance when the music starts. Dovey is a character I have fallen in love with; it’s a joy to play her every night.”

As a native of Wisconsin, this is the first time Lay is performing in Florida. She was attracted to the production because it requires the actors to also play musical instruments and accompany themselves throughout the story. 

“I’ve been playing violin (mostly classical) since I was 4 years old, but only in the last five years or so have I had the opportunity to combine theater with my musical instrument,” she said. “In those five years, I have met and worked with the most brilliant and talented people, and they’re what keep me coming back to these kinds of shows. The actor-musician world has challenged me in ways I never thought possible and taught me so much about not only the violin but also about myself as an actor and a person. 

“The second thing that attracted me to this production was the subject matter,” she said. “My great-grandma Bernice was born in 1926 in the hills of West Virginia. Her father was a farmer, and she was one of 10 siblings. Before her passing in 2007, she spent many nights recounting the stories of her upbringing in Appalachia, so I feel incredibly honored to tell this story in her honor.”

David Finch, 55, plays Wilmer Flutie, the local moonshiner.

“Wilmer is essentially one of only two non-family members depicted in the show; he’s on the outs with the maternal figure (Curleen) and has to work his way back into her good graces,” he said. “His profession as a moonshiner, and all that goes with that, has probably caused this disharmony. So, he uses his charm and humor to re-establish his relationships with the Ballard family. As an actor, riding that ever-thin line of character and caricature is always tricky with a more chromatic character such as Wilmer. But, DJ wrote a very funny part, and if I stay true to the script and trust what he’s written, Wilmer plays out how he should. My favorite thing about him is my chance to bring some bits of the more colorful people I’ve known in my life into my interpretation of him.”



Annabelle Sikes

News Editor Annabelle Sikes was born in Boca Raton and moved to Orlando in 2018 to attend the University of Central Florida. She graduated from UCF in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in sociology. Her past journalism experiences include serving as a web producer at the Orlando Sentinel, a reporter at The Community Paper, managing editor for NSM Today, digital manager at Centric Magazine and as an intern for the Orlando Weekly.

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