A most welcome Celtic Christmas

Down Tremont Street from the Boston Commons in Beantown’s theater district lies one of the country’s most beautiful halls on the urban campus of Emerson College.

The Cutler Majestic Theatre restored by Emerson at a cost of $15 million reopened in 2003 a century after the Beaux Arts opera hall first appeared as one of the city’s finest performances spaces. The small cramped lobby doesn’t adequately prepare you for the grandeur awaiting you inside the beautifully crafted hall that accommodates 1,200 patrons.

Such a place seems a fitting home base for one of Boston’s great Christmas traditions, “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” presented and produced by Brian O’Donovan of WGBH radio.

Now in its eighth year since its humble beginnings as a one-night show in Somerville, Massachusetts in 2003, the show has grown significantly to a hardy perennial of the Christmas season in New England, with demand for 10 shows this year in five different New England cities including the hometown of WGBH, Boston.

Growing out of the weekly Saturday radio program Celtic Sojourn on WGBH (www.wgbh.org) that O’Donovan has been presenting for over two decades in an erudite fashion, known for its knowledgeable mix of traditional music through a contemporary prism, this Christmas show hews a similar thematic approach.

O’Donovan, originally from Clonakilty on Cork’s southern shores, has assembled a team of veteran performers to help shape and evolve this annual production which has developed a loyal following in and out of his sizeable fan base among the WGBH listenership.

His artistic director Paula Plum has worked with O’Donovan from the outset, and as an award-winning actress her role is to introduce the key elements of stagecraft like movements and language on stage and lighting to enhance it so that there is a connective flow to what some might mistakenly think is only a concert.

Kieran Jordan serves as the dance director. As the principal choreographer and dancer for the past seven years, she opted to sit this year’s show out as she continues to recover from a leg injury.

Using her extensive background in Irish dancing and training at the University of Limerick in contemporary dance where she obtained a master’s degree, she has formulated many wonderful dance routines over the years in collaboration with O’Donovan and his musicians.

Rounding out this august team is Seamus Egan, the leader and founder of Solas who performed in the 2007 and 2008 shows, who has served as the music director for four years now.

Along with helping O’Donovan decide on a musical cast each year, Egan’s job is to meld those musicians into a working unit to complement themselves and one another, and to integrate the obvious Christmas music repertoire with the traditional and contemporary music.

The experience of this team is all the more valuable when you consider that they must whip the cast and show into shape in four days of rehearsals in Boston before hitting the road.

Skype phone calls and conferences months prior are required to ensure that they can accomplish the necessary fine-tuning once the artists are assembled before the scheduled shows.

In recent years the show had expanded appearances out to Worcester and Providence, and this year they added Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Northampton, Massachusetts to the road dhow which added to the workload and travel.

They maintained their base at the beautiful Back Bay Hotel (formerly Jury’s Hotel and still owned by the Doyle Hotel group who renovated the former Boston Police Headquarters) near the Cutler Majestic. That proximity came in handy on the second weekend as the Boston theater hosted five shows from Friday to Sunday, including the final evening show which I attended.

Like so many others, I find “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” an enticing and entertaining respite from the hustle and bustle of the season.

While it shares much with other Celtic Christmas shows, blending seasonal carols and hymns with music more closely associated with the featured artists, O’Donovan’s on stage task is to weave Christmas past, present and future through a Celtic window, and he does so engagingly every year, from the comfortable and well-worn red leather chair or stage-front ambling as he chats with the artists he introduces.

It is the talent lineup that draws me to make the yearly trek up in December because the quality and combinations are first rate. With a chance to see and hear Heidi Talbot once again as the featured vocalist from abroad, now married to Scots fiddler John McCusker and a mother since her days with Cherish the Ladies, it was a treat to hear her soft delicate voice in her solo and choral slots.

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