REVIEW: The 52nd annual ‘Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration Tales from Ellis Island’ shares solace and warmth into a tapestry of traditions from around the world

After a half century, the Midwinter Revels can not only still create fresh and concise storytelling while weaving in various cultures and traditions with a balance of joy and poignancy, but this year recalls a miraculous event in history that is not shared enough during the holiday season.

Innovatively written and directed by Patrick Swanson and guided by Carolyn Saxon as the Immortal Spirit of Place, Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration Tales from Ellis Island continues live and in person at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, MA through December 28 and then will be available virtually December 29 through January 15.  Each performance pays tribute to Revels supporters and this particular performance was dedicated to the The Rioff Family in honor of WGBH’s Brian O’Donovan.  This show is translated in ASL and is approximately two hours with one intermission.  Click here for more information and tickets.

The Ensemble of The Christmas Revels Photo by Roger Ide

Veteran reveler David Coffin’s enthusiasm reflected the same from the audience as he vigorously prepared them pre-production for the Revels live and interactive sing-along that features a vast array of carols and cultural songs.  Meticulously musically directed by Elijah Botkin and led by Keith Murphy of A Saint Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn, an intimate onstage band returns as the Liberty Band performing carols to folk to war songs from around the world right alongside the cast.  The joy and gratitude in singing in front of an audience again is as uplifting as ever and the cast’s a cappella harmonies are a glorious treat.

Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration Tales from Ellis Island does not just take place on Ellis Island, but provides the foundation for each of the tales shared during the production.  The tales of hardship and strife seem so different, but are somehow tied into shared experiences as immigrants from all over the world find themselves stranded together on Christmas Eve in 1924.  The spirit of the season is exemplified in several tales including a fiddle that needs mending featuring Maeve Leahy as Bridget and Ewan Swanson as Isaac.

From Left to Right Carolyn Saxon, Maeve Leahy and Ewan Swanson and the Revels Ensemble Photo by Paul Buckley

Adorned in a glimmering gown and gold wreathed crown, Carolyn Saxon makes a warm and welcome return to Revels this time as the Immortal Spirit of Place.  Her subtle charm and light humor enhance each aspect of the production as she guides the audience through various tales and periods in history in Nikes.  Saxon is clearly enjoying this enigmatic role becoming invisible when she wishes and popping up at felicitous and spontaneous moments. 

While last year’s show focused on saving a bar by venturing into the past, family is much more prevalent as members of the cast tie in pieces of their own cultural holiday memories into the production.  Irish and Jewish Dramaturg Nicole Galland contributed by drawing on her own experiences and upbringing.  With frank and humorous inflections, Reveler Stephanie Clayman is an amiable and avid storyteller as she brings some of those tales to life such as two well staged pieces of morally centered Jewish folklore and several Chanukah traditions.

Stephanie Clayman, Ewan Swanson, The Ellis Island Children, and the Midwinter Revels Adult Chorus Photo by Paul Buckley

David Coffin as Conor Riley revealed a miraculous event during World War I that took place on Christmas Eve in 1914.  For a brief time, soldiers showed camaraderie with their enemies as they joined together in song, games, and friendship.  It is a historical event that needs to be shared with as much frequency as annual holiday traditions such How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol, or It’s a Wonderful Life.  That brief interlude of peace made such a significant impact on the world and Midwinter Revels depicts that moving period of time with Christmas in the Trenches, O Tannenbaum and Stile Nacht as the production spread itself beyond the Sanders Theatre stage.

The children are always a joy to watch and this year as the Ellis Island Children, they share upbeat, jumping rope rhythm for There’s a Big Ship Sailing and later with Las Posadas as Mary rides on a donkeyIt is just one example of the many endearing appearances they make in song and tale.

A brilliant performance comes from Ricardo Holguin who passionately performs a wondrous rendition of Mexican love song La Malgeuna followed by striking number El Relampago featuring women in gorgeous floral headdresses and sun drenched gowns by Heidi HermillerKelli Edwards’ multifaceted choreography is on full display throughout as well as for a tricky and intricate sword dance accompanied by an onstage accordion and drummer for The Straw Folk Mummers Play and Rogue’s Delight.

Though the show lulled a bit on occasion, Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration Tales from Ellis Island’s engaging tales bring unity and light and depicts how sharing different traditions can bring a new understanding and warmth into the darkest of times.

Midwinter Revels: A Solstice Celebration Tales from Ellis Island continues live and in person at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, MA through December 28 and then will be available virtually December 29 through January 15.  Click here for more information and tickets.

REVIEW:  ‘Christmas Revels In Celebration of Winter Solstice’ a clever and inviting return to the stage

Performing for a full and enthusiastic crowd and dedicating the performance to Revels friend Julie Smith, this year’s Christmas Revels offers a lot to its audience, but most importantly, it ushers in the excitement and gratefulness of being together again with a sing-along as well as emphasizing helping those in need.   

Christmas Revels’ audience sang live in Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts and now until January 9, you are invited to sing along virtually from your own living room.  Be sure to download the program first and follow along to songs from the middle ages to classic Christmas carols to contemporary classic songs.   Directed cleverly by Patrick Swanson, The Christmas Revels in Celebration of Winter Solstice is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.  Click here for more information and how to see this year’s show.

Scene from the Mummers Play (William Forchion as The Dragon, Regie Gibson as the MC/referee, and Mark Jaster as Saint George) Photo courtesy of Shep Ferguson

From last year’s selection of new songs mixed in with some of their greatest performances over Christmas Revels’ 50-year run, Christmas Revels is back to a bit of storytelling and theatrics while still tying in the past with the present day – pandemic times, masks, and all.  An unconventional battle with a dragon is only portion of this wild and peculiar tale where traditions are challenged and life today takes an unexpected turn for this lively cast during a caroling and Christmas party. 

It also weighs in the vintage with the contemporary while infusing its own share of lighthearted humor and enough fantastical elements to create a concise and innovative story.  Acknowledging our present woes, Christmas Revels offers insight and hope into how to best help each other through these difficult times. 

Christmas Revels boasts a large, collaborative cast which includes the lighthearted return of Paula Plum and Richard Snee’s quick-witted observational skills.  With dynamic chorography by Kelli Edwards, Tony Tucker, and Gillian Stewart, charismatic David Coffin returns as Master of the Revels leading an uplifting rendition of Lord of the Dance and beautiful a cappella harmonies for Donna Nobis Pacem.  Alex Cumming and the Revels Morris dancers also impress with the traditional and eclectic Pudding Jig.

The Elizabethan’s arrive! (William Forchion, Regie Gibson, Mark Jaster) Photo courtesy of Shep Ferguson

William Forchion portrays pub owner Joe with Carolyn Saxon as his wife.  Forchion is affable and charismatic keeping a cool head as the pub experiences some unexpected surprises.  He shows off some fancy footwork in a drum-infused sword dance and his smooth vocals are also put to the test in a dual role that is anything but cool.  Regie Gibson portrays sophisticated and no nonsense Reginald while Sabrina Selma Mandell amusingly delivered cheerful comedic nonsense as Flunky, a seemingly dimwitted jester. 

Carolyn Saxon bringing the house down at the George and Dragon’s annual carol party Photo courtesy of Shep Ferguson

Carolyn Saxon gives an amazing performance every time she lifts her voice.  Her vibrant vocals shine in her warm delivery of Oh Happy Day, her heartfelt rendition of Lean on Me, and inspiring Someday at Christmas accompanied by the entire cast.

The Ha’Penny Wassail Children also do a splendid job as they join together for a festive “zoom” to We Wish You a Merry Christmas, their own sweet rendition of Someday at Christmas with harp accompaniment, and leading off a glorious Wassail medley while decorating a tree.

Elizabethan’s strut their stuff (dancing) Photo courtesy of Shep Ferguson

Heidi Hermiller’s colorful costumes varies from humorous ugly Christmas sweaters to festive pub wear to resplendent, gold embroidered and delicately laced gowns.  Jeremy Barnett’s hospitable and festive pub setting includes subtle sparks of hope and encouragement weaved into the surroundings such as a ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ sign by the bar.  With a glowing fireplace in the background, the warm atmosphere boasts a festively decorated room enhanced with lit evergreen trim wrapped around the entire theatre as Jeff Adelberg innovative lighting flashes to the beat as the live onstage Pickled Eggs House Band showcase a variety of music styles led by Music Director George Emlen and Associate Music Director Edmar Colon.

The Christmas Revels in Celebration of Winter Solstice continues its virtual run through January 9.  Click here for more information and how to see the show.

REVIEW: Celebrity Series of Boston presented John Pizzarelli Trio and Veronica Swift for Nat King Cole tribute and more on Valentine’s Day

Since Jazz and love doesn’t follow a set of rules, they came together for Valentine’s Day.

Love lit up Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Valentine’s Day as Celebrity Series of Boston presented ‘For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole’ on Friday, February 14 at 8 p.m.  Whether longing for love, falling in love, or losing in love, Veronica Swift and the John Pizzarelli Trio brought a jazz-infused twist to classic love songs and American Standards from Gershwin, Billie Holiday, Cole Porter, and especially Nat King Cole for one night only.

Veronica Swift and John Pizzarelli are currently on tour.  Click here for Swift’s upcoming shows and here for John’s future tour dates.  Click here for more on Celebrity Series of Boston and their upcoming events.

Festive purple curtains embellished Sanders Theatre’s beautiful, softly-lit stage.  Dressed in an effervescent pink jumpsuit that changed shades in different lighting, jazz vocalist Veronica Swift kicked off the evening with a drum-infused rendition of Cole Porter’s breezy classic, Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).  Each musician had an opportunity to show off their stellar talent which included pianist Julius Rodriguez, bassist Phillip Norris, and drummer Aaron Kimmel.

Swift offered a casual, low key presence as she shared childhood stories of growing up touring with her jazz singer mother, Stephanie Nakasian and her father, bebop pianist Hod O’Brien.  Swift’s versatile set had its share of joyous and stirring moments which included a poignant version of Ella Fitzgerald’s Everytime We Say Goodbye dedicated to her father as her voice swelled in quiet emotion.  She skimmed the scales in an electrifying version of Billie Holiday’s Come Rain or Come Shine and an anguished Prisoner of Love.

Veronica Swift and pianist Julius Rodriguez Photo credit: Robert Torres

At just 25 years old, she is a spirited and contemplative performer.  Jazz aficionados would appreciate her natural ability for scatting showcased in a fast paced, ebullient rendition of Billie Holiday’s I Can’t Believe that You’re in Love with Me.  Though I am not a big jazz fan, it is easy to appreciate the liberties jazz takes to transform these classics into a refreshing, eclectic new sound.

With a great deal of humor, a relaxed atmosphere, and in a sharp gray suit, avid storyteller John Pizzarelli delved into the history of Nat King’s Cole music while sharing some of his own history along the way.  He revitalized a few of Nat King Cole’s hits and shared a few anecdotes in tribute to Nat King Cole’s centennial.  American Jazz singer-songwriter and musician Nat King Cole was one of the most successful artists on Capital Records’ roster and his music has inspired generations.

Pizzarelli is currently on tour for John Pizzarelli Trio’s most recent album For Centennial Reasons:  100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole.  The title seems a subtle play on Nat King Cole’s I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons) which Pizzarelli performs tenderly later in the show.  Aside from Pizzarelli who can no less shred on guitar, Pizzarelli was joined by spectacular musicians Isaiah Thompson on piano and Mike Karn on bass.  The John Pizzarelli Trio’s collective sound had the rhythm of a moving train.  Each piece came alive as the instruments seem to “chat” with each other especially during Hit That Jive, Jack and a lively rendition of Honeysuckle Rose.

Celebrity Series of Boston presented the John Pizzarelli Trio and Veronica Swift at Sanders Theatre.

Bassist Mike Karn, John Pizzarelli, and pianist Isaiah Thompson Photo credit: Robert Torres

The trio explored Lorraine as Pizzarelli shared a legendary story about how the song turned Nat King Cole from a pianist into a singer, though it is a rumored tale.  Nat King Cole was part of the Nat King Cole Trio and it was nice to see Pizzarelli reflecting that with his own John Pizzarelli Trio, each member getting their own chance to shine.

Pizzarelli’s delivered an uplifting set which included a few love songs.  His guitar hummed during a cheerful rendition of Nat King Cole’s Make Believe as lightning fast pianist Isaiah Thompson commanded the keys.  Pizzarelli showed off his side winding guitar style in his own song titled Nat King Cool and his scatting skills during Nat King Cole’s Frim Fram Sauce.  The evening’s lighthearted vibe continued with the humorous Save the Bones for Henry Jones, the vibrant I Would Do Anything for You, and one of Nat King Cole’s most popular singles, Straight Up and Fly Right.

Celebrity Series of Boston presented the John Pizzarelli Trio and Veronica Swift at Sanders Theatre.

John Pizzarelli, bassist Mike Karn, and pianist Isaish Thompson Photo credit: Robert Torres

Swift returned to the stage for a few Gershwin classics that included a wistful Someone to Watch Over Me.  She and Pizzarelli delivered a wonderful rendition of They Can’t Take That Away from Me, I Got Rhythm, and their lauded encore Route 66.

As a big Nat King Cole fan, I would have liked to have heard Nat King Cole’s Stardust and his mega-hit Unforgettable, but it simply didn’t fit into an evening consisting of mostly the brighter side of love and its boundless possibilities.

Celebrity Series of Boston is just getting 2020 started with a number of performing arts musicians that includes Bobby McFerrin, Milos, the Jason Palmer Quartet, Lyon Opera Ballet, and the return of Alvin Ailey.  Click here for the full list of upcoming events.

 

REVIEW: NPR’s Rob Kapilow’s engaging ‘What Makes It Great? The Songs of Leonard Bernstein’ hit all the right notes

NPR’s famous composer, conductor, and music commentator Rob Kapilow certainly knows his way around a baby grand piano.  Under soft lights and in front of a full house, he is once again ready to transform the way the audience hears and understands some classic tunes.

In honor of the legendary composer and playwright Leonard Bernstein and the centennial of his birth, Rob Kapilow took his popular, 22nd annual What Makes It Great series to Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, which is Bernstein’s alma mater on Friday, March 9 for one night only.  Celebrity Series of Boston presented What Makes it Great? with Rob Kapilow and Jessica Rivera:  The Songs of Leonard Bernstein featuring an array of legendary Broadway songs during Leonard Bernstein’s time, delving into its brilliant, emotional quality and style through its carefully selected musical notes. Part teacher, humorist, and historian, Rob Kapilow proved once again that this engaging series is as fascinating as ever.  Click here for more on What Makes it Great and here for more on Celebrity Series of Boston.

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Renowned soprano Jessica Rivera Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Calling on a few of Broadway’s most enchanting and classic love songs, Rob was accompanied by renowned soprano Jessica Rivera.  Adorned in a shimmering black dress, Jessica’s versatile, impressive vocals ranged from lighthearted to passionate yearning as Rob had Jessica peel back the layers of each song, revealing what makes each tune shine.  With humor and grace, Rob and Jessica also revealed what each song might have sounded like without its individuality.  What Makes It Great never fails as an eye-opening experience.

Delving into the musical atmosphere and history of Leonard Bernstein’s time, Rob chose a selection of powerful, yet dreamy classic Broadway songs reflective of this era while showing how they are also vastly ahead of their time.  From dreamy songs such as, A Little Bit in Love from Bernstein’s Wonderful Town to the high-spirited I Could Have Danced All Night from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady to the powerful Somewhere from Bernstein’s West Side Story, Rob shows how the composer ties the musical elements together to enhance the listener’s musical experience.  For example, he describes how Leonard Bernstein’s wildly successful West Side Story is a perfect fusion of classical technique to popular theatre.

Evan Kinnane, a renowned Boston tenor, joined Rob and Jessica for a special stage performance of Tonight after Rob described what makes this song so special.  Full of passion and excitement, Evan and Jessica have a mesmerizing rapport and their marvelous blend of vocals demonstrates the song’s and Bernstein’s timeless appeal.

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NPR’s Rob Kapilow and his piano Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

After 22 years, Rob Kapilow continues to captivate audiences with his vast musical knowledge, sense of humor, and his careful analysis of what makes music such a rich, fulfilling experience.  Capping off the evening, Jessica Rivera poignantly sang Some Other Time from the Leonard Bernstein’s musical, On the Town, about how quickly time passes by.  It’s a fond farewell until next time.

Celebrity Series of Boston continues its stellar season with the 50th Anniversary of Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, acclaimed soprano and Broadway star Audra McDonald, Ira Glass, Los Angeles Philharmonic, 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 Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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Renowned performers Alan Cumming, Audra McDonald, and Pilobolus part of Celebrity Series of Boston’s new season

Celebrity Series of Boston is about to close out another spectacular season with the Boston debut of L.A. Dance Project from Friday, May 19 through Sunday, May 21 at the Shubert Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts.  Sunday’s final performance will feature a free, brief talk with Ballet Master Sebastien Marcovici following the performance.  Click here for more information and tickets.

Alan Cumming

Multi-talented star Alan Cumming opens new Celebrity Series of Boston season on October 6 Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

It won’t be too long until Celebrity Series of Boston will start its 2017-18 season in October and features a wide range of performances in music, dance, and more taking the stage at renowned concert halls around Boston.  Kicking off the season is Tony award-winning actor, singer, and author Alan Cumming, who will take the stage at the Sanders Theatre for one night only performance on Friday, October 6 at 8 p.m.  He currently hosts WGBH’s Masterpiece Mystery.

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Multi-talented Audra McDonald performs on April 13 2018. Publicity photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Some of the highlights of the fall season include best-selling author David Sedaris, the return of acclaimed dance troupe Pilobolus, Joan Osborne Sings the Songs of Bob Dylan, another edition of What Makes it Great with Rob Kapilow on Mozart Symphony No. 40, and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton.  Next spring also offers a wide spectrum of performances including the return of Brazilian dance troupe Grupo Corpo, Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos, Yo-Yo Ma, Grammy-winning sextet eighth blackbird, another edition of What Makes it Great with Rob Kapilow featuring the Songs of Leonard Bernstein, and the return of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and multi-talented Audra McDonald.

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Joan Osborne sings the Songs of Bob Dylan November 3 Photo courtesy of Celebrity Series of Boston

Click here for a closer look at next season and how to get tickets.  Click here to learn about discounts and become a subscriber and get a wide range of benefits.  Follow Celebrity Series of Boston on Facebook and Twitter for updates and more.