Earlier this week, PBS aired Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Featuring Santino Fontana & the Sesame Street Muppets. This hour-long special was taken from a series of concerts performed at the 21,000 seat Conference Center in Salt Lake City last year. I had intended to write a review of that airing. Due to a technical glitch, I will instead be writing a review of the DVD release of this event titled Keep Christmas with You. Many of the performances outlined were included in the PBS airing, but the DVD includes over 30 minutes of additional material.
Christmas is my favorite time of year, and I generally enjoy concerts of all types of Christmas music. However, I have rarely watched Christmas concerts by the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir. That will probably change in future years because of how thoroughly I enjoyed this performance. The concert begins with a wonderful production of “Sing a Christmas Carol” from Scrooge performed by the 360-member choir accompanied by a fantastic 102-member orchestra under the direction of Mack Wilberg. The music and stage decoration are amazing. I can’t imagine how spectacular is must have been to attend this event in person.
Next up is an original composition called “Merry, Merry Christmas.” As if the performance weren’t already dazzling enough, the stage is now filled with dancers (very brightly dressed as if they had leapt out of the pages of one of the Oz books). Big Bird arrives at the end singing “Merry Christmas” not realizing that the concert has already started. He is then joined on stage by Ernie, Bert, Grover, Abby Cadabby, Rosita, Cookie Monster and Elmo. They are all terrified and embarrassed that they are late. Big Bird declares the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas Special to be his second favorite show on PBS. Conductor Mack Wilberg welcomes them to the show. The Muppets are overwhelmed with how Christmassy everything is with singing, dancing and colorful costumes. Maestro Wilberg informs them that this is only part of Christmas and that Christmas is much, much more than everything happening on the stage. Everyone wants to help. Abby and Rosita want to sing with the choir, Bert and Ernie will help backstage, Grover will direct, and Cookie Monster decides he will help after he finds Christmas cookies. Elmo states that if Christmas is really more than all of this, he will take his video camera and look for “more.” Big Bird doesn’t know what he will do, but says he will think of something.
This begins a series of interstitials by the Muppets with the first one featuring Grover in the control room. Ernie and Bert are backstage having some fun mispronouncing the star’s name. Santino Fontana (the voice of Prince Hans in Disney’s Frozen) then makes his appearance in another Wizard of Oz-esque moment by dropping down from the ceiling in a hot-air balloon while singing “Candy Man” followed by “Pocketful of Miracles.” He then solemnly performs “Some Children See Him.”
Grover, Cookie Monster, and Elmo make an appearance as Elmo searches for the “more” that Christmas is about. Elmo reports from Temple Square that the first “more” he found is millions of tiny lights: “The more lights, the more it feels like Christmas.”
The orchestra and choir are then featured in “A Classical Christmas” comprised of “Marche Miniature” from Suite for Orchestra in D Minor, op.43, “Hear, King of Angels” from Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, and “Cum Sancto Spiritu” from Petite messe solennelle.
At this point, Conductor Mack Wilberg heads backstage where he meets Big Bird. Big Bird has decided that he can be part of the concert by conducting. Big Bird borrows the wand and begins to head to the stage. When asked if he needs any tips, Big Bird says he will “wing it.” This begins a Sesame Street medley as Big Bird conducts the “Sesame Street Theme.”
Elmo gives his next report from the stage where he is still looking for “more” of what makes Christmas more than any other day. He is joined by Cookie Monster as Santino Fontana sings “People in Your Neighborhood” (featuring a clarinetist, a dancer, and a choir) under the direction of maestro Ryan Murphy.
Grover announces Ernie’s surprise is next. Ernie lures Bert onto stage. Bert is embarrassed to sing as his voice “sounds nasal at best.” Santino encourages Bert to sing from the heart as they begin “Sing” and are joined on stage by Big Bird, Elmo, Rosita and Abby.
Santino Fontana then sings a medley of Christmas songs featuring excerpts from “Let It Snow! Let it Snow! Let It Snow!,” “White Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “Sleigh Ride,” “Blue Christmas,” and “Winter Wonderland.”
We return to Grover and Cookie Monster in the control room. Cookie is still desperate for cookies, but Grover announces it is now time to hear the “biggie big pipe organ.” We are treated to a stellar performance by organist Richard Elliott playing an arrangement of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” narrated by Count Von Count. The Count provided some wonderful commentary and even performed on his own pipe organ at Day 11. Of course, it was all capped off by thunder and lightning.
There is another interstitial with Ernie, Bert and Elmo and the “more” pipes of Christmas. Onstage now are Abby, Rosita and Katie from the choir. In their banter, they manage to drop a reference to the new “Smarter, Stronger, Kinder” Sesame Street tagline followed by a performance of the Sesame Street classic “Keep Christmas with You.”
Cookie Monster is still on his quest for cookies. Santino explains there is more to Christmas than cookies. They are joined on stage by Elmo, Big Bird, and Abby as they perform “Everyone Who Likes Christmas Say, ‘I Do!'” in an attempt to give Cookie Monster more Christmas spirit and show him that Christmas can be fun without cookies. He is then presented with a plate of Christmas cookies. Cookie Monster learns that Christmas is about friends, family and sharing…so he shares the cookies with everyone.
This is followed by a performance of “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” by the orchestra and choir. Santino Fontana provides a reading of the Christmas story from Luke 2 accompanied by the orchestra.
Santino and the orchestra then perform “Angels from the Realms of Glory” followed by a finale of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” All the Muppet performers take the stage for a final bow with the characters they are performing (apparently Peter Linz is performing Big Bird at this moment as Matt Vogel takes the stage with Count). Grover finally gets a moment to sing during a reprise of “Keep Christmas with You.”
Overall, the performance is a great mix of new and classic holiday music. It is pure Christmas magic and should delight even the Scroogiest among us. The orchestra, choir, dancers, Santino Fontana and the Muppets are all in top form. This special should be part of your annual Muppet Christmas viewings.
The DVD also contains several bonus features including an interview with Santino Fontana and some promotional videos with Count Von Count. The bonus that will most delight Muppet fans is a 23-minute behind the scenes featurette with the Muppet performers: Matt Vogel, Peter Linz, John Kennedy, William Barkhurst, Carmen Osbahr, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, Eric Jacobson, David Rudman, and Ryan Dillon. The DVD is available from Amazon or the PBS Shop.