The Ut Madrigal Dinner

Texas Union,
November 18

When I go out for dinner and entertainment, it usually involves Oriental food of some sort and music, something along the lines of Joe Ely, Brave Combo, Delbert McClinton, etc. So it was completely out of character for me to go to the Annual Madrigal Dinner at the Texas Union on the 18th of November. I went with a group of friends knowing absolutely nothing about the event. I went to school at UT, and also work there, but for some reason I had never been tickled by the Madrigal Dinner bug.

The event costs $20, a little less for the cheap seats, a little more on weekends, with discounts for UT students. For this, you're fed a four-course dinner, presented a two-hour play, and serenaded by a surprisingly adept chorus of some 34 singers (who also function as footmen and wenches, servers and jokesters). Picture a tornadic wind sucking up some Rennaisance Faire, an off-Broadway play, a smattering of clowns and jugglers, a few bellydancers, with a little bit of Henny Youngman thrown in for good measure, and whirling them into one room. I looked at the event as an $8 dinner with $12 of entertainment thrown in. When viewed from this perspective, I would have to say that I got my money's worth.

Some folks I've talked to have told me that they view the Madrigal Dinner as a way to jump-start their holiday season, but with Christmas decorations showing up at the malls around Halloween, I have to think their battery must be dead. Still, I must admit that I got that "little kid looking at the Christmas tree" feeling while listening to the holiday carols being sung from the balcony of the lobby before we were seated.

This year's show -- the script changes every year -- was loosely centered around the Prince's birthday party, with a subplot involving the gypsy queen, who had designs on seducing and marrying the king. To this end, she uses the influence of a mysterious love potion, but it, of course, backfires on her in the end. The emphasis is on comedy, with as many bad puns as possible, lots of ribald and bawdy double entendres, and plenty of audience participation. Throughout the play, at convenient spots in the storyline, different courses are brought forth by bearers, with much fanfare, celebration, and song. During these breaks, performers circulate among the tables, juggling, telling jokes, reading palms, singing, kissing, all of it very interactive -- the equivalent of a medieval lap dance.

Once we had been escorted to our tables by the cast members -- wenches for the guys, footmen for the gals -- wassail (warm, spiced apple cider) was poured, and quite tasty French, banana, and blueberry breads were served. The salad course was a presentable romaine with capers, tomatoes, croutons, parmesan, and a tangy Caesar dressing. The entree course included roasted turkey tenderloin with a rich gravy and mirepoix of celery, onion, and potato, accompanied by a light bread and pecan dressing, and a melange of carrots and squash with herbed butter and parmesan. The dishes were served family-style, and there was plenty to go around for each table, with seconds for the asking. Dessert was a strawberry and blueberry trifle, mounded with whipped cream and pound cake. Prepared by Aramark, the catering arm of UT, the meal was a cut above convention fare, or, say, Luby's, but when viewed as an eight-dollar meal, not bad at all.

More surprising was the quality of the performers. All are volunteers, and, for the most part, not music or drama majors. Most have performed in high school or church productions, but we're not talking professionals here; these are amateurs. Even so, the Texas Juggling Society provided some incredible displays -- picture a jester standing on a plank-and-log teeter-totter, keeping three bowling pins in the air while spinning a plate on a tall stick held in his teeth! The singers -- who had rehearsed together only two months -- produced rich, flowing harmony, with the soloists filling that huge room with their clear, lilting voices. I assumed that they were all pros from the music school and was totally blown away when I found out they were amateurs. The kicker for me was when it was over, and the audience was filing out, we were serenaded by a knocked-out reggae version of "Deck The Halls" sung to the tune of "The Banana Boat Song." -- Mick Vann

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