LOS ANGELES (AP) — Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara and Richard Thomas of “The Waltons” are the guest artists for “Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir,” but there’s another stellar attraction: The annual event was taped pre-coronavirus, free of health constraints or virtual tricks.
A 21,000-seat auditorium is home to the concert taped over three nights in December 2019 with the 360-member choir and a 110-musician orchestra. It’s standard practice to record the “spectacle” — as the elaborate, decades-old Christmas event is called — to air the following year and cherry-pick each performance’s highlights.
“Right now, it seems almost like it’s Mars,” O’Hara said, comparing the concert to events held under coronavirus restrictions. “I’m just really happy to be a part of it. I think it’ll be uplifting and something to look forward to.”
“Christmas with The Tabernacle Choir,” taped at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Temple Square complex in Salt Lake City, airs as an hourlong special Monday, Dec. 14, on PBS stations (check local listings for times). A 90-minute version at 8 p.m. EST Thursday, Dec. 17, on BYUtv, a cable and streaming channel.
As part of its “Americana Christmas” theme, the concert pays tribute to musical genres including folk, bluegrass and African American spirituals, and to holiday traditions and stories that are unique to the nation, according to a release.
Among the tunes: “Mashing Through the Snow,” aka “Jingle Bells,” with what’s described as an “organ extravaganza” played by Richard Elliott with the Cold Creek bluegrass band, and “Mary’s Little Boy Child,” a widely recorded song by the Black composer and actor Jester Hairston.
The extended BYUtv program includes a Rodgers and Hammerstein medley by O’Hara, who received the 2015 best musical actress Tony Award for her performance in the songwriting team’s “The King and I.”
Thomas serves as narrator and performs readings of an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s story “Christmas Day in the Morning,” an excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Biblical passages describing the birth of Jesus.
Buck’s tale about a boy’s gift to his father is “a beautiful American Christmas story, very touching,” Thomas said. It has a rural quality that relates to his father’s roots in Kentucky, where the New York-born actor has spent many summers since childhood.
The country setting also dovetails with the 1970s series “The Waltons,” about a Southern family in the 1930s and ’40s, said Thomas, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of John-Boy Walton and whose TV credits include “Billions” and “The Americans.”
The choice of material for this year’s edition of the Christmas celebration wasn’t happenstance, he said. After he was invited to take part in the event, organizers inquired about his family background and holiday memories.
“They don’t want you to just show up and be like any narrator. They want you to be able to bring yourself authentically to the event. And I think that’s really wonderful,” he said.
O’Hara, who is in the top rank of Broadway musical performers with seven Tony nods, also personalized her performance. Besides songs including “Angels from the Realms of Glory” and “Mary’s Little Boy Child,” there was a tune she chose for her father, who attended the concert.
The Oklahoma-born O’Hara recalled how he would hush the family when his favorite holiday song, “A Cradle in Bethlehem,” was playing on a Nat “King” Cole Christmas album.
“It’s such a gorgeous song” if not a well-known one, O’Hara said. She asked that it be given a new arrangement, and said the concert’s makers generously built a production number around it.
“We sang it as sort of a surprise” for her dad, she said. “It ended up probably being my favorite moment in the whole show.”
Lynn Elber can be reached at email@example.com and is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.
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