“I’m just the messenger,” Brian O’Donovan says about putting together his crowd-pleasing “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn.” “I see it as a privilege, a chance once a year to gather with musicians and dancers that I feel passionate about.”
O’Donovan’s variety presentation, now in its 16th season, comes to the VETS on Dec. 20 for one performance, part of an annual holiday tour around New England. O’Donovan serves as artistic director and host, using his immensely popular WGBH radio show—along with frequent visits to festivals all over the world—to find talented performers for the holiday program.
“It’s a challenge, but a tremendous opportunity as well,” he says about putting the show together. “It either takes no time, or all the time in the world. People trust us—trust that it’s going to be lighthearted, with lots of talent and variety.”
Familiar faces from Sojourns past will take the stage, along with newcomers. Paula Plum returns to direct, as she has since “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” began. “I’m the overall producer and host,” O’Donovan says. “I write the show, and map it out, but Paula stages it in a theatrical way.”
Barrington’s own Kevin Doyle returns as dance director. “He’s an inspiration,” O’Donovan says of the internationally known step-dancer. “What he does is more than just dance—he has to weld all the disparate roles together.”
Music director Seamus Egan works with Maeve Gilchrist to guide the instrumentalists and singers, who include cellist Natalie Haas, Brenda Castles on concertina, and long-time collaborators Ben Wittman and Chico Huff as the rhythm section. The folk quartet The Fretless joins in as well, as well as the vocal group Windborne.
New to the production this season will be young Scottish singer Hannah Rarity. “One of the main festivals I go to every year is Celtic Connections in Glasgow,” O’Donovan says. “Hannah was there, and I loved her singing.”
It’s a broad mix of entertainers, and O’Donovan does that intentionally. “We really do an old-fashioned variety show,” he says. “Growing up in Ireland, in the ’60s and ’70s, I was always fascinated by the TV variety shows. Ed Sullivan, Andy Williams and Danny Kaye. Jackie Gleason and Art Carney too. It comes from a Yiddish theater tradition in many ways, and I made it a study.
“What I do is a Christmas model,” he says. “Changing from comedy to pathos, and introducing new artists who are not averse to novelty. It’s vaudeville in a way, and all over the map. It changes every year, but it seems to be satisfying.”
Satisfying indeed—the shows invariably sell out. “The first show we did in 2003 sold out 1100 seats in a day,” he says. “The following year we did three shows, and they sold out in a day-and-a-half. It wasn’t like we sat down and planned anything.”
But he does plan it, of course, and although the performance itself may come across as a seamless presentation, lots of work has gone on before the singers and dancers even get to the stage.
“What we create is an amalgam,” he says. “Not quite a concert, and not quite a theater piece. But elements of all that. A gathering of great friends, who are musicians and dancers.”
Christmas Celtic Sojourn comes to the VETS, 1 Ave. of the Arts, Providence, on Thursday, Dec. 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25–$85. Call (401) 421-2787 or visit thevetsri.com.