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.
Talbot performed “I Wonder As I Wander, Angels We have Heard on High, O Holy Night” from among the Christmas classics, and added “Start Is All Over Again” and “Everything” from her contemporary canon. She shared vocal duties with Robbie O’Connell and Brian, Lindsay and Fionnuala O’Donovan.
O’Connell provided a familiar and at times comical presence in the show, displaying the powerful clear voice that has made him a popular performer in his own right. His modern day carol “Three Kings” was one of those treasured moments listening to a singer who wrote his own song.
O’Donovan and O’Connell are Irish émigrés to the Boston area and share a close 30-year bond so they easily conversed as they informed the audience of the history behind two Christmas show staples, “Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake” attributed to the McNulty family, and “Christmas in the Trenches” written by John McCutheon.
Fionn O’Donovan gave us a stirring solo in “In the Bleak Midwinter” and duet with Talbot for “Away in a Manger.”
The special guest dancer this year was the double-threat Caitlin Nic Gabhann (she also plays the concertina), a captivating stepdancer with loads of stage presence and confidence gained from Riverdance tours and years of performing that belie her age.
With Jordan sidelined, it fell to Meath native Nic Gabhann to fill the sizeable shoes in a production where dance choreography is an integral part of its success over the years thanks to Jordan’s vision and awareness of other dancers’ appeal like a Nick Yensen, Aidan Vaughan, Kevin Doyle and Nick Gareiss, who starred with her in years’ past.
In the second half her choreographed routine to the Latino-infused tune “Tico Tico” to the brilliant music led by Seamus Egan was a show-stopping performance full of sass and attitude and clever costuming completed by the dashing hat.
Equally impressive was her concertina accompaniment to a wonderful set dance by young Patrick Mellow, one of the charming young dancers from the Harney School of Dance who compliment the show throughout and help make this great family entertainment.
Seamus Egan and O’Donovan assembled an amazing group of musicians for this edition of “Celtic Christmas Sojourn” which at times rivaled one of the fine string ensembles you would see anywhere.
It was led by multi-instrumentalist Egan, who played the low whistle, flute, banjo, guitar and mandolin, Beoga’s Sean Og Graham (Antrim) who doubled on guitar and button accordion and his bandmate, Eamonn Murray (Antrim) on bodhran and snare drum who returned for a second year, and long-time Egan associate bass guitarist Chico Huff.
The front line of strings were manned by the incredible Scots duet of fiddler Chris Stout (Fair Isle) and harpist Catriona McKay (Dundee), Hanneke Cassel (Oregon), Amanda Cavanagh (Boston) and Natalie Haas (California) on cello.
Cassel and Haas are well-known younger musicians who recently toured with Childsplay and are leading members of the Boston music scene known for its creative crossover chops.
Cavanagh is the latest young talent to come out of the Boston Irish music community, currently studying at University of Limerick and Tufts as a music major.
Stout and McKay are a cutting edge tandem in the Celtic music circuit around the world who wowed the crowd with their wildly dynamic composition “Isflak” or “Ice Flow,” inspired by the northern channels surrounding the Shetland Islands as their party piece in the show.
While nowhere near as lethal as “Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake,” the ingredients to making the “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” a success every year are very important, and each year it seems like it gets easier and smoother as the team matures in its vision and combined expertise.
Behind the scenes the hard work is very evident and results in a seamless production on stage as far as the audience is concerned. In fact, like Robbie O’Connell’s apt description of eating a slice of Christmas cake at Easter time and still getting “high as a kite,” the allure and magic of “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” can be enjoyed throughout the year.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all and see you in 2011!