REVIEW: Christmas Revels 50th virtual anniversary delivers mirth, merriment, and reflection

For what marks its 50th year, Christmas Revels has been entertaining audiences by delving into vast cultures and recreating historical moments and holiday traditions with drama, dance, humor, and song.  Christmas Revels made its debut in 1971 and though it is limited to the screen this year, this engaging production brought a mix of new material while glimpsing some of their best performances in their long history. 

Father Christmas makes an appearance in The Christmas Revels annual “Mummers Play” Photo courtesy of Revels

Having never seen Christmas Revels before, it was a lot to take in and quite a feat to encapsulate the best moments in such a broad time frame.  Catching glimpses of some of their special guests, returning favorites, and new faces was an innovative way to recap a half century of productions, but it also had me longing to see more, especially as I glimpsed some of their best, most enduring performances.

Christmas Revels is still available to stream on-demand through Thursday, December 31.  Click here for more information and how to support future Revels productions.  The 50th Anniversary of Christmas Revels is also available as a 2-CD set.  Click here for more information.

Statues: Paula Plum as James Otis and Richard Snee as Josiah Quincy Photo courtesy of Revels

Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre is as majestic and welcoming as ever even as it fills for a virtual audience.  The dark, wooden stage is softly-lit with two stately, marble Greek statues sitting on each end as a grand, dimly-lit bronze chandelier floats overhead.  Hosted by acting dynamos Paula Plum and Richard Snee as James Otis and Josiah Quincy who were immortalized as those legendary statues on the Harvard University stage and the only souls who have seen every Revels performance and then some, Christmas Revels blends humor, stirring moments, and a wistful trip down memory lane to witness some of Revels’ earliest performances as it gradually became what it is today.  

From humorous moments to joyful carols such as 1984’s Yorkshire Here We Come A Wassailing, Go Tell it On the Mountain with Janice Allen and Joy to the World featuring choruses from Christmas past and virtual Christmas present, and a serene Dona Nobis Pacem featuring renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Christmas Revels does not predictably explore its past in sequence, but in clever moments such as merging a past and more recent performance of a song  by various performers, setting a different tone to its enduring meaning.

Yo-Yo Ma with Audience: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs the peace round “Dona Nobis Pacem” with members of the Revels Virtual Audience Photo courtesy of Revels

One of the best and most exciting examples of this was in 1997’s and 2015’s Lord of the Dance featuring David Coffin, Neena Gulati, and Patrick Swanson as they explored eastern and western Hindu traditions.  Audience members were on their feet as enthusiastic performers led audience members to spill out into the Sanders Theatre’s lobby singing along.  1993’s Kukko dance featuring the Karelian Folk Ensemble stood out as one of the more exotic cultures while 1997’s Niska Banja featuring the Revels Women, New England Romanian Ensemble, and Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble revealed beautiful and distinctive garb.  2007’s Shopsko, choreographed by Petre Petrov with Mladost Folk Ensemble, The Village Band, and Cambridge Symphonic Brass Ensemble offered memorable upbeat and bustling Bulgarian dance. 

Johnny Nichols, Jr. and Carolyn Saxon perform the spiritual “Hold On” in a segment linked to Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise”, exploring the ongoing journey towards justice and equality Photo courtesy of Revels

 Janice Allen and the Silver Leaf Gospel Singers took the stage in 2000 for a stunning, acapella version of Amazing Grace while 1986’s impressive Appalachian Clogging with Ira Bernstein and the Big Gap String Band and Jean Ritchie delivered a captivating Kentucky folk carol, Christ Was Born in Bethlehem.  Another indelible moment rested in a powerful medley of 2000’s Underground Railroad featuring Sheila Kay Adams and Janice Allen, Jordan Ashwood, and Cyrus Brooks, Silver Leaf Gospel Singers, Roaring Gap Chorus, Rocky River Children, Carolyn Saxon, and Johnny Nichols, Jr.

Christmas Revels’ ever changing repertoire is too numerous to mention every highlight, but there are plenty of surprises.

The detailed, rustic sets and the meaningful, meticulous costumes ranged from festive to humorous to haunting.  It was marvelous to witness the virtual technology that was such a big part of this production.  The virtual choir delivered moving, crisp carols and seeing the creators including founder John Langstaff and Revels Directors Patrick Swanson and George Emlen united in present time without actually being onstage provided some comfort that technology can still make some things possible. 

Christmas Revels is still available to stream on-demand through Thursday, December 31.  Click here for more information and how to support future Revels productions.  Click here for more information on The 50th Anniversary of Christmas Revels available as a 2-CD set. 

REVIEW: Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, Mark Morris Dance Group’s ‘Pepperland’ a psychedelic, humorous, and visually-compelling Beatles tribute

It was a packed house and a long line outside of the Boch Shubert Theatre in Boston on a cold Sunday afternoon on February 10 to witness Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland, a humorous and visually-captivating tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Beatles lauded album, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Having made its debut in Liverpool in May 2017, Celebrity Series of Boston presented this distinct musical celebration for three performances only from February 8-10.  The show was approximately an hour with no intermission.  Click here to see where Pepperland will be next,  here for more information about the Celebrity Series of Boston and their upcoming performances, and here for more on the Mark Morris Dance Group.

From depicting the Beatles rampant popularity to a psychedelic journey to enlightenment to the lonely journey of finding love, Mark Morris Dance Group offered a fresh take of this beloved Beatles album through Ethan Iverson’s  original compositions.  Often instrumental, Pepperland is partially sung and narrated, highlighting some of the Beatles most popular and insightful lyrics.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle. Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

Renowned costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman’s brilliant color schemes such as mesmerizing black and white checkered suits and kaleidoscopic pleated dresses seamlessly blend with the crystallized multi-color backdrop, thanks to set designer Johan Henckens and lighting designer Nick Kolin.  This mix created an alluring flair.

Within these original orchestrations lie hints of some of the Beatles most popular songs.  A particular highlight was the song, Magna Carta, where dancers bring some of the celebrities featured on the album cover, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band to life, like Marilyn Monroe and Laurel and Hardy, just by their signature poses.  Mark Morris Dance Group performed a nostalgic version of With a Little Help from my Friends, punctuated by peace signs and a simple, yet memorable wave.

Pepper land dress rehearsal and press night. Images by Gareth Jones

Pepper land dress rehearsal and press night in Liverpool. Images by Gareth Jones/Celebrity Series of Boston

The dancers’ somewhat trippy and complicated moves personify the essence of the album while also providing a new vision.  Dancing in brightly colored socks, they performed a blend of classic and contemporary moves as they bent into a complex slant and defied gravity as they leaned back into each other.  In bright, bold colors, they formed clever dance combinations spinning in pairs, purposefully out of sync.

Their interpretive, ensemble dance of A Day in the Life was another particular standout, telling their own tale.  Couples flourished and dancers were lifted through the crowd.  Also weaved into the songs were energetic dance moves reminiscent of the era.  During the song, Within You Without You, dancers lapsed into moments of loneliness as the Beatles reflected, “We were talking about the space between us all and the people who hold thousands behind us all.”

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

Book ending the show was the iconic title track, Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.  The psychedelic, signature beat punctuated by a captivating and unique march kicked off and ended a journey that featured moments of joy, beauty, and individuality as they paid tribute to one of the most brilliant bands of all time.

Click here to see where Pepperland will be next.  Celebrity Series of Boston offers a dynamic roster featuring the annual Stave Sessions, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, What Makes it Great with NPR’s Rob Kapilow, and much more.  Click here for more information and for tickets. Tickets can also be obtained at the Celebrity Series of Boston’s box office.  Follow Celebrity Series of Boston on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Morris Dance Group’s costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman talks vibrant inspiration behind Beatles show, ‘Pepperland’

According to Rolling Stone, The Beatles hit album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ranked #1 of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003.  Not only is this groundbreaking album visually compelling, but songs on the album such as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, With a Little Help from My Friends, Penny Lane, When I’m Sixty-Four, and the album’s popular title track are considered rock and roll classics.

What is it like to bring that album to life in vibrant color in its 50th anniversary year?  New York costume designer Elizabeth Kurtzman talks about what it was like to bring Mark Morris Group, Pepperland to the stage.  Celebrity Series of Boston presents Mark Morris Dance Group’s Pepperland, a tribute to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in Boston February 8-10.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle. Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

Sleepless Critic:  It must be exciting to portray the essence of this classic Beatles album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in its 50th anniversary year.  Please tell me what your initial thoughts were in taking on this project.

Elizabeth Kurtzman:  I read the email inviting me to work on a project that involved music by the Beatles. I thought I was dreaming and was really intrigued.  Mark Morris and the Beatles are two of my favorite things.  I could not imagine how it would all look and sound. I knew it would not be by-the-book –Beatles and it had to be turned around pretty quickly.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle. Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

The 60s brought rapidly changing style. There is a lot of information in the years the Beatles made all that music, so there were a lot of possibilities.

SC:  You have worked with the Mark Morris Dance Group numerous times.  How was this project a unique experience for you and what do you like most about working with them? I know it might have been a challenge to tie in a contemporary feel to such an iconic time period.

EK:  They look great in these clothes/costumes and wish the guys wore these suits all the time.  They are a dream and it isn’t easy to dance in layers made out of corduroy.

Some of Mark’s pieces require more research than others. I spent hours looking up fashion and color from 1960-69. Mark was not interested in dressing the dancers in satin and feathers a la the album cover. It was more about trying to send the message of the early sixties. Simple shapes, but those shapes looked new, fresh, and young. Colored tights were so futuristic and men’s suits got smaller and cuter. I was a kid mid-sixties, but was completely mesmerized by those clothes.

Color was just as important as shape. Colors were new, synthetic fabrics made bolder, brighter fabrics available. The color palette was loosely based on a photo of a mural painted on a corner on Carnaby Street in London.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

SC:  Songs like With A Little Help From My Friends, When I’m Sixty-Four, and the title track are just a few of the songs portrayed visually onstage.  What was that process like and can you offer a hint of the vibe audiences can expect when they see the show?

EK:  I think the show is about the energy of the time which offers a lot of happiness with a little melancholy thrown in.

SC:  From what I have seen of your work, you seem to add a vibrant personality to the performers that take the stage.  The colors and designs really pop.

The dancers are so game and energetic, the color and design only enhance their skill.  I love working with fabric and color and am fortunate to be able to attend rehearsals, which is where I get to see the personality of the dance and how the dancers move.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Seattle. Images by Mat Hayward/Celebrity Series of Boston

 SC:  What has been the most challenging work you have done in New York or otherwise?

EK:  I can’t say there is one thing I’ve worked on that stands out as most challenging. There are always a few little challenges, but always a way to overcome them. It is more challenging working with small theatre companies that have tiny budgets and lots of costume changes or working with opera singers who hate the way they look in any and everything.  The biggest challenge is sewing it myself.

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‘Pepperland’ performance in Liverpool Images by Robbie Jack/Celebrity Series of Boston

SC:  You also provide art and music for programs for children in New York City.  Please tell me more about that and how you got involved.

Several years ago, I was involved with the Children’s Museum of the Arts downtown. I was determined to get kids to design and repurpose their clothes. Most of the adults I know do not know how to sew on a button.

I helped put together a program for children on the autism spectrum and their families that provided a place for making great art and music.  I also spent many hours designing and making costumes for the theatre department at my daughter’s high school who graduated in 2017.

Celebrity Series of Boston presents Mark Morris Group, Pepperland, at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre in Boston from February 8-10.  Click here for more information and for tickets. Tickets can also be obtained at the Celebrity Series of Boston’s box office.  Follow Celebrity Series of Boston on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

REVIEW: Reagle Music Theatre’s 35th anniversary of ‘ChristmasTime’ is most wonderful

Brimming with holiday cheer while celebrating two milestone anniversaries, Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston is offering a season more spectacular than ever before.  Not only is Reagle celebrating its 50th anniversary, their beloved annual holiday music revue, ChristmasTime is marking 35 magnificent years.  These special ChristmasTime anniversary performances are dedicated to Reagle’s Christmas Angel, Natalie L. Durkin.  ChristmasTime continues through Sunday, December 10.  Click here for more information and for tickets.

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Raggedy Ann Photo courtesy of Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston

Just walking into Robinson Theatre before the performance, attendees are greeted by iconic holiday characters and Victorian carolers as the Robinson halls are decked out onstage and off with brightly lit snowflakes, richly designed Christmas trees, gold embossed wreaths, and the stage festively framed with wooden embroidered angels.  Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston annually features the memorable performances that transformed ChristmasTime into a holiday tradition as well as additional scenes that keep the show fresh each year.

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ChristmasTime stage Courtesy of Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston

From touching, candlelit hymns to joyous rollicking Christmas carols for the entire family including a sing-along, Reagle Music Theatre’s production of ChristmasTime never loses steam even in its quietest of moments.  During the holiday season, spend the afternoon witnessing a unique musical revue seeped in a variety of iconic Christmas scenes expertly narrated with the warm, inviting vocals of R. Glen Mitchell and a live orchestra led by Jeffrey P Leonard and Paul S. Katz.  Featuring an enormous, impressive cast of all ages with some performances offered with special permission from Radio City Music Hall, Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston travels to distant lands and different time periods from the North Pole to New York City in landscapes painted with picturesque flair by Robert Moody of Santa’s Workshop, Rockefeller Center, Boston’s duck statues, a candlelit church with sunburst stained glass windows, and the stunning, sprawling city of Jerusalem.

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Renowned Tenor Fred C. VanNess Jr in The Living Nativity

The afternoon also featured an array of special, surprise guests with the returning, suburb talent of renowned tenor, Fred C. VanNess Jr and Mara Bonde’s gorgeous vocals.  Famous scenes of the season include a lively version of The Nutcracker, appearances from Reagle’s Rockettes, a humorous scene from Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, and the suburb The Living Nativity highlighted by popular carols like Little Saint Nick, Jingle Bells, Twelve Days of Christmas, and Christmas medleys capture the Christmas spirit in an unforgettable way.  Scenes are also peppered in performances from toys to trees coming to life dancing to rock, gospel, and much more.  ChristmasTime, through its delightful, stunning vignettes of the season, exhibits a captivating depiction of the meaning of Christmas.

As part of Reagle’s 50th anniversary celebration, Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston is holding a limited raffle to win a new Honda Civic.  Click here for further details.

This annual, interactive celebration, which is appropriate for all ages, has a strong following so purchase tickets now.  Each show is held at Reagle Music Theatre, 617 Lexington Street in Waltham, Massachusetts through December 10.  Call 781-891-5600 or Click here for tickets and for more information and upcoming events in 2018 such as Night Fever:  An Evening With the Bee Gees and A Little Bit of Ireland. Tickets are also available at the theatre box office.