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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform with the Sesame Street Muppets during their annual Christmas concert in Salt Lake City. The concert will be performed again tonight at 8 p.m., and an abbreviated performance will be featured as part of "The Music and the Spoken Word" on Sunday at 9:30 a.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — Pre-performance chatter among the audience before a Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert isn't out of the ordinary, but this time it was different.

With young boys in ties and sweater vests and girls in their Christmas dresses fidgeting and sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the performance to begin, there was something different in the air.

It was anticipation, excitement and pure, childlike joy.

And it was no surprise as this year’s Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert featured the "Sesame Street" Muppets and Santino Fontana as its special guests.

When the choir and Orchestra on Temple Square announced the guests for its annual concert in October, it was fairly obvious the concert would have a significant family draw. They even lowered the admittance age from 8 years old to 5 years old to accommodate those who desired to see the show.

And the choir, orchestra, Fontana and the Sesame Street characters certainly delivered a show that could appeal to children and adults alike.

Count von Count, Elmo, Grover, Abby Cadabby, Rosita, Bert and Ernie, the Cookie Monster and, of course, Big Bird, were up to their high jinks and antics from the very beginning as the crew walked in on the stage “just waiting for the concert to start.”

When choir director Mack Wilberg informed them they had walked right into the middle of the concert, Big Bird advised his friends to “just act natural” before stating, “I love your Christmas special. It’s my second favorite show on PBS.”

From there, each of the characters took on their own storyline that carried them through the rest of the performance: Elmo went in search of finding what “more” Christmas could be about than presents; Grover took over the control center to call the shots; Big Bird went off to find a way he could play a part in the show; and Cookie Monster, of course, went on his tireless search for the Christmas cookies. These narratives served as creative and engaging transitions throughout the rest of the performance, which were accepted by the crowd with giggles, claps and cheers.

Fontana returned to the LDS Conference Center Auditorium, where he was last seen in July as the featured guest for the choir’s Pioneer Day concert. Fontana, or at least his voice, has swept into homes across America thanks to his role as Prince Hans in Disney’s animated hit “Frozen.” He’s also gained attention for his role as Prince Topher in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” on Broadway, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. And his performance during the Christmas concert showed that his renown in recent years is well-deserved.

He made his entrance into the performance in a hot air balloon surrounded by large toy airplanes that dropped from the ceiling as the choir opened the number “The Candyman/Pocketful of Miracles,” which he joined in on with ease, singing with an old-timey quality.

His stage presence throughout the concert contained an exuberance that was practically contagious. His performance was genuine as he sang and interacted with the members of "Sesame Street" in an undeniably natural and engaging manner.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra on Temple Square delivered nothing less than what one would expect of the world-renowned musical organizations, including their signature goose bump-inducing crescendos, sharp staccatos and an all-around powerhouse performance.

All of the "Sesame Street" characters that were part of the show made their debut early in the concert with the exception of Count von Count. His appearance, however, came just in time to help organist Richard Elliot count “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The Count inserted his own creative commentary to introduce each day, adding a humorous twist to the solo.

Elliot’s arrangement of the English carol was brilliant as he switched keys and styles to reflect the object the “true love” gave each day, including playing the “fifth day” rings in a wedding march style and the “seven swans-a-swimming” with a graceful and light mood and inserting strains from “The Nutcracker’s” “Russian Dance” into the “10 lords-a-leaping” verse.

Wilberg and the other organizers of the concert knew what they were doing with song selection. Songs such as the "Sesame Street Medley" and “Everyone Who Likes Christmas” were very fun and child-friendly in their style and subject matter, while others such as “Marche Miniature” and “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” brought a reverence many traditionally expect from the concert. The entire program utilized the guest performers, choir and orchestra in exactly the right spots to capture and keep the audience's attention.

The final admonition from the performers came through a reprise of Sesame Street’s “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year),” a reminder to all in attendance that the spirit and meaning of Christmas doesn’t have to last only through December.

And with the standing ovation, roaring claps, excited cheers and hints of laughter echoing through the crowd, one got the feeling that everyone heard that message loud and clear.

It was certainly the first Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert of its kind, with hopefully more like it to come in future years.

The concert will be performed again Saturday at 8 p.m., and an abbreviated version will be part of “The Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast Sunday at 9:30 a.m. All the tickets to these performances have been distributed, but standby seating may be available. A standby line will form at the north gate on Temple Square two hours before each performance.

“The Music and the Spoken Word” will air live on Ch. 5, BYUtv and other television stations depending on location. It can also be viewed online at mormontabernaclechoir.org.

Email: [email protected], Twitter: WhitneyButters