“Madrigal Dinner Meager on Magic,” originally appeared on pagosa.com, Dec. 7, 2004

Before the royal court arrived, Candy Flaming, Lady Chamberlain and the cast of wenches and serfs instructed the audience how to bow and curtsy. A tuck of the knee, a deep swooping bend, nose reaching toward the floor, prompted one guest at the Hampstead table to announce, “Help, I’ve curtsied and I can’t get up!”

Unfortunately, that was the most hilarious moment during Music Boosters’ Magical Madrigal Dinner. The madrigal tradition began in Italy and came to England in the 16th Century. Lords and Ladies entertained themselves by singing stories and playing music while they enjoyed dinner in the great halls of the landed gentry. A modern Madrigal Dinner is a re-enactment of a medieval or renaissance court, complete with pageantry, raucous humor, silly skits, poignant poetry, traditional food, and sacred and secular music sung by chamber singers. A typical Madrigal Dinner is scripted with actors performing as the royal court, knights, wenches and serfs, emphasizing madrigal singing — medieval poetry set to music with several voice parts skillfully combined melodically and rhythmically. Often performed at colleges and universities, madrigals are historically accurate, filled with masques and poems of the time. This version will be offered again next weekend for those who missed Friday and Saturday’s performances.

The Music Boosters production is a lavish affair. The costumes, designed by Michael DeWinter, are elegant, accurate representations of Renaissance England, particularly those of the King, Queen, Queen Mother, Archbishop, Lady Chamberlain, and the Court Jester. It’s too bad the same care was not taken on the serfs and wenches costumes. A few wenches wore full linen skirts, blouses and corsets, but many were in thrift store garb, which detracted from the otherwise historically accurate attire. It is clear that costuming was the focus for this event and thousands of hours of stitching and sewing and beading were donated by Linda Bennet, Winnie Pavlovich, Maggie Hart, Janie Bynum, Janet Nordman, Judy Ferguson, Barbara Trask, Maddie Banner, Betty Schwicker, Lindsay Morgan and Michael DeWinter. The costumes are brilliant.

The Community Center gymnasium became a grand hall. Four long tables representing Nottingham, York, Sussex and Hampstead, were clothed in yards of patchwork velvet, a dozen heavy gold candlesticks, and greenery. Each place set with a silver platter and two rose-colored plastic goblets. No utensils provided, to maintain authenticity. Above the tables hung courtly flags representing different principalities. The King and Queen sat in high backed chairs on an elevated platform, with tapestry and velvet hung behind them. However, I was hoping to see more tapestries on the long walls of the gymnasium. The set decoration didn’t go quite far enough to transport me back to the castles and country homes I visited throughout England and Scotland, the summer I studied at Trinity College, Oxford.

Music was the highlight of the evening. The madrigal singers, Randi Anderson, Chris Baum, Gena DeWinter, Matthew DeWinter, Jessica Espinosa, Amber Farnham, Candy Flaming, Kimberly Judd, Kim Legg, Tim McAlister, Jesse Morris, Christine Morrison, Jon Nash-Putnam, Jean Smith, Janna Voorhies, and Don Weller performed nearly flawlessly, a rough start on the “Wassail Song” the only glitch of the night. Strolling minstrels Jesse Morris and Chris Baum were delightful on guitar and violin, serenading young maidens.

But overall, the production lacked magic. Not magic tricks, those were performed well by Lady Karen Carpenter and her parrot Maya and Jester Dale Schwicker. But the magic of a story. The King and Queen had no name. It wasn’t the court of Henry VIII or Phillip II, King of Spain — as my alma matter the University of Texas, San Antonio recreates for their madrigal dinner, pitting the music, poetry and dance of Spain against that of England in 1592. No knighting ceremony as they correctly recreate at the University of California, Irvine. Even the program failed to say anything more than we were being transported back in time 600 years. There was no thread running through the production, no overarching tale to hold it all together.

The Royal court enters and there is a welcome by the King and then by the Queen, the Lady Chamberlain recites a slightly humorous poem on table manners. Guests are served wassail — warm, spiced apple cider. The Hunchback Chef, Michael DeWinter, arrives to announce in a slobbering slur that dinner is served. The Queen Mother complains she is not hungry. Vegetable Soup, mostly broth, is slurped from bowls or soaked into slightly tasteless rolls. The singing continues. A fake boar’s head is presented to the royals and the main course served: Roasted chicken thigh and leg quarters marinated in citrus, thyme and a vinegar-based sauce that the hunchback chef said is barbeque sauce, but the taste is sweet, not spicy or sour. The chicken is tasty, but slightly cool. Half a potato slathered in barbeque sauce (would taste better roasted with rosemary and no sticky sauce) and half a corncob, accompany the chicken.

The King calls for entertainment and Lady Karen performs magic tricks with her squawking parrot — which a member of the Hampstead table kept imitating, providing more humorous entertainment than the show itself. Then the Swineherd, played by Don Weller, tells a series of really bad chicken jokes, which the King condemns, ordering the death of the Swineherd. Lovely maiden, Matona, played by Veronica Zeiler, comes to his rescue and the Swineherd is ordered to a joust with the Black Knight, played by Tim McAlister.

Of course, the Swineherd wins the joust on his white paper mache horse, and he proceeds to recite a poem to Matona. Weller’s performance lacked passion and presence, and it was difficult to hear him, therefore much of the meaning of the poem was lost. Zeiler was expressive as the maiden, sporting a decent Cockney accent and she remained festively in character throughout the evening, while serving the meal and keeping the wassail flowing, providing humorous tidbits about the King.

Dessert is a flakey apple tart, served with more wassail and decaffeinated coffee. There is dancing, music, and more singing. Occasionally serfs and wenches run among the tables. The Archbishop keeps demanding more wassail, and before you know it the night is over and the royal court exits with as much pomp and circumstance as they entered. The only thing that kept the evening moving along was a wonderful performance by Candy Flaming as the Lady Chamberlain who kept everyone involved with lots of “huzzahs!” which the Hampstead table turned into a less appropriate “piss off!” That, and the beautiful renditions of madrigal songs and carols, including a group sing along of Good King Wenceslas (words provided on a scroll, thank goodness).

If you go, bring along friends (and it doesn’t hurt if the people you are sitting with have already enjoyed a couple of cocktails at the Office Lounge beforehand.) The doors open at 7:00 p.m. and the festivities begin at 7:30. Reserved tickets are required and may be purchased at the Plaid Pony (970-731-5262). Prices are $24 for adults, $20 for seniors, and $18 for students and children. There are still good seats available for the December 10 and 11 performances. And the fact that Music Boosters gives most of their proceeds back to the community in the form of scholarships and support for our local high school and junior high music and drama programs means the money is well spent — even if the production could use a little more magic.

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