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Mormon Tabernacle Choir concert features Muppets, return of Fontana

Cookie Monster once sang “C Is for Cookie.” But at this year’s Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert, the famous Muppet was reminded by singer Santino Fontana that the letter also stands for “Christmas” and “concert” and “choir.”

Cookie and eight of his “Sesame Street” friends — Elmo, Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, Grover, The Count, Abby Cadabby and Rosita — are joining the choir, Orchestra at Temple Square, Bells on Temple Square and returning guest artist Fontana on stage at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City for the three-night performance that began with a dress rehearsal Thursday and continues tonight (Saturday) at 8 p.m.

“Me come all this way to spend whole Christmas concert looking for cookies, but me no find cookies anywhere!” a distraught Cookie Monster exclaimed. “It’s disaster of epic proportions!”

But Elmo, Big Bird and Fontana helped him see that there is more to Christmas than holiday goodies.

“You know what you did get more of?” the Tony Award-nominated singer asked him.

“Frequent flyer miles?” the monster responded.

“No. You got more friends, more love, more joy,” said Fontana, who then launched into the song “Everyone Who Likes Christmas,” one of the more memorable melodies from the concert, along with “Keep Christmas with You (All through the Year),” performed with Rosita and Abby Cadabby.

“Me see it! Christmas about friends and family!” Cookie eventually acknowledged.

The Muppets first appeared on stage after a premature entrance by Big Bird, who interrupted the opening processional of young people dancing to the choir and orchestra performance of musical director Mack Wilberg’s “Merry, Merry Christmas.”

Singing along with the music, the bigger-than-life, yellow-feathered character apparently didn’t realize the show had already started, a fact that Wilberg gently pointed out to him.

“Oops,” he said. “Hey guys, we already started.”

The other Muppets then joined him.

“I just love your Christmas special,” Wilberg said to the director. “It’s my fav-, uh, second-favorite show on PBS.”

The Muppets offered to help put on the concert: Rosita and Abby volunteered to be in the choir, Bert and Ernie to help out backstage, Grover and Cookie to direct and Elmo to take a video camera and be an on-the-spot reporter from Temple Square and elsewhere.

“Wonderful,” Wilberg said. “This all sounds great. But what about you, Big Bird?”

He was eventually given the privilege of borrowing Wilberg’s “magic wand” and leading the choir in one of the selections.

Fontana’s appearance was a rare occasion — only the second time — when a guest artist has appeared in two consecutive Tabernacle Choir concerts within a year. He was featured in the Pioneer Day Concert last July.

This time he made a lofty entrance — literally — descending onto the stage in a cartoon-like hot-air balloon and singing a Sam Cardon-arranged medley of “The Candy Man” and “Pocketful of Miracles,” followed by the Alfred Burt composition “Some Children See Him.”

Fontana later performed an assortment of holiday favorites most everyone knows.

A traditional high-point in the yearly concert is virtuoso Richard Elliott’s whimsical performance on the immense Conference Center pipe organ, his own unique arrangement of some holiday pleasantry or other.

This year, Elliott played off The Count, who, doing what he does best, counted down “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” introducing each verse in turn.

At a news conference the morning after the Thursday performance, Cookie Monster said, “Oh boy, we got beautiful choir, amazing orchestra, 21,000 people and not one cookie. What’s up with that?”

Provided with a cookie, he chomped it, dropping and then retrieving a crumb. “Me don’t care about five-second rule,” he said. “Me need a five-year rule.”

Elmo said singing is his favorite thing to do. And at the performance, “me have a lot of fun. And it was wonderful to see all those people out there and the little kids. It was wonderful.”

Abby Cadabby spoke of the chance she and Rosita had to sit in with the choir.

“We felt like angels up there with the choir,” she said. “When we all sing together in harmony, I can feel it in my spirit. It’s so beautiful.”

Choir president Ron Jarrett said, “We were finally able to perform this program, this beautiful concert, for a live audience that was filled with 5-year-olds, and those young children’s eyes just gleamed. It was a magical evening for everyone who came, and the level of excitement was real.”

Musical director Wilberg said having the Muppets for the concert was the culmination of a dream he has had for years. “And I can’t think of a person who would be better with these, our wonderful friends from Sesame Street, than Santino.”

Asked how the show was scripted, Wilberg said it was a collaborative effort between a local team of writers and the Sesame Workshop.

“We had one of our writers, Chrissy Ferraro, work with all their great ideas and just make them character-related,” explained “Sesame Street” executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente.

Fontana said that at a gathering Thursday after the performance, his mother reminded him that for one of his childhood birthdays, he had demanded a Cookie Monster cake. “So she’s now going to try and find the picture and I’m sending that to David (Rudman), who is Cookie Monster.”

He said it is “surreal” to be interacting with characters he watched while growing up, and his tendency is to want to sit back and watch them rather than converse with them.

Parente said this is the 45th anniversary of the “Sesame Street” series. “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate 45 years than to be working with an organization of such talented people,” she said. “At Sesame, we are proud of the high bar we have towards excellence, and to work with another organization that has an even higher bar than we do has been a joy and a privilege.”

Jarrett said a total of some 80,000 tickets were distributed for the three nights of the concert plus the Sunday morning “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast that will be followed by a mini-concert for those attending in person. Even so, tickets were in unusual demand due to the lowered age limit for attendees.

“For those of you without a ticket, you can still feel the magic. Come down and be part of the standby line, because we still can get you in, we’re quite sure,” he said.

rscott@deseretnews.com