Actress Angela Lansbury, Tabernacle Choir deliver holiday gift

Concert evokes reverent devotion and wholesome touch of festivity

It was a yuletide experience made to order — devotion and reverence with a wholesome touch of festivity, tenderness and childhood magic — as veteran actress Angela Lansbury joined the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square for the annual Christmas concert Dec. 7 and 8.

The Conference Center rostrum was transformed to reflect the theme, "The Joy of Christmas." Groves of evergreen and deciduous trees formed backdrops for a stone archway and wall on one side of the choir seats and a sleigh and park bench on the other. White and red poinsettias and colored flood lights accented the scenes.

Resplendent in red velvet, and with simulated snowflakes falling, Miss Lansbury began her first segment in the concert with a lusty rendition of "We Need a Little Christmas" from "Mame," the Broadway role for which she received one of four Tony Awards for Best Actress.

She said she was honored to receive the invitation to perform but her first reaction was to wonder what she "could possibly bring to this extraordinary yearly event." Then, she thought of the children who had come to know her voice from the characterization of Mrs. Potts, the matronly teapot in Disney's animated feature "Beauty and the Beast." She pondered how the events associated with the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11 have affected children generally.

"Their fears and often-secret terrors need to be addressed so carefully," she said. "And all of us — parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles — must try to do everything we can to allay those fears and reassure these little ones that they are safe and loved and that right will prevail and good will triumph over evil."

With that, she herself gave this musical reassurance: "Nothing's going to harm you, not while I'm around," from the musical "Sweeney Todd," a show for which she won another of her Tony Awards.

Later she charmed the audience with her reading of "A Christmas Story," Dina Donahue's tale of a community Christmas pageant in which a boy in the role of the innkeeper brings new meaning to the performance because he cannot restrain himself from offering his own room to Mary and Joseph.

But it was her famous rendition of the title song from "Beauty and the Beast" that brought forth the greatest outpouring of audience affection, the choir and orchestra accompanying her with a faithful performance of the musical arrangement from the movie. The voice characterization, inspired by "these little cockney ladies" she knew while growing up in London, was unmistakably familiar, as were the lines of dialogue she gave at the end: "Off to the cupboard with with you now, Chip. It's way past your bedtime. Good night, love."

Early on, the choir evoked an atmosphere of majesty with two pieces from Handel, "Joy to the World" and "For Unto Us a Child Is Born" from Messiah, then added generous amounts of warmth and nostalgia with "Angel's Carol" and "What Sweeter Music."

The cultural variety of the Christmas celebration was present in a stylized orchestra arrangement of "Carol of the Bells" and in "I Wonder as I Wander" by the choir and orchestra

Performing "March of the Toys," the familiar Victor Herbert tune from "Babes in Toyland," the orchestra added an element of childhood fantasy. The choir and orchestra followed up with "Toyland" from the same musical.

Bell ringing from some of the choir members augmented the performance of the medieval carol "I Saw Three Ships." John Prather's tenor solo lent an extra degree of tenderness to the choir's performance of "Silent Night."

Star of stage and screen Angela Lansbury sings with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Dec. 7, 2001 during a Christmas concert at the Conference Center.
With the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as “backup singers,” Angela Lansbury sings “We need a Little Christmas” during the choir’s annual Christmas concert in the Conference Center. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Beginning with an already regal introduction featuring the Conference Center organ, the choir and orchestra swelled to a resounding crescendo in "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing."

That might have been the high point of the evening, were it not for Miss Lansbury's sublime reading from Luke's account of the birth of the Christ Child, during which the orchestra softly played "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." Leading in to the choir's and orchestra's performance of "Glory!" based on Adeste Fidelis, she gave this narration: "The wait had been long for the Son of God, the Lord Omnipotent. By prophecy He was to reign in glory, yet the scene of His birth was strikingly simple. And quiet. A singular star in the heavens announced in brilliant rays that the Light of the World had come. Yet, the setting was lowly; the young Babe born not in a palace fit for a king, but in a Bethlehem stable near a shepherd's field. There was no room for Mary and Joseph at the inn in the village. No room for the Lord Emmanuel."

As the concluding selection, the choir backed soloist Laura Garff Lewis in the traditional French carol "Angels from the Realms of Glory," the melody more popularly known as "Angels We Have Heard on High."

A standing ovation from the audience in the Conference Center was answered with a reprise from "Beauty and the Beast" as an encore. Then, audience and performers became one as Miss Lansbury motioned for everyone to join in on "Angels We Have Heard on High."


Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed