Theo Ubique's Original (But Very Brief) A VERY MERRY MADRIGAL
Most theater companies try to mount something during the holiday season. (Clearly, that's the understatement of the year!) Some do the tried and true holiday favorite. Some avoid seasonal fare altogether, in a strategy of counter-programming. The thought is, with all those nine-to-fivers taking time off work, maybe some of them can be tempted to see a live performance! And of course, theater folk need some income to help pay for those holiday bills, and to pay for the trip home to see the folks in the first few days of January.
And so it is that the powers that be at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, that most storefront of all of the Chicago area non-Equity musical theater companies, has mounted a clever idea and unique holiday entertainment called "A Very Merry Madrigal," directed by David Heimann, with musical direction by Aaron Benham and Jeremy Ramey, arrangements by Benham and piano accompaniment (at the performance I saw) by Ramey.
Now, this entertainment doesn't really owe that much to the actual madrigal tradition, the unaccompanied secular songs of the 16th and 17th centuries that arose from Italian poetry and lasted the longest in Tudor and Jacobean England. And if you think about it, the very idea of secular part-songs being performed in celebration of Christmas is inconsistent at best, impossible at worst. (Maybe "secular" means "not composed for a church service," but what do I know?)
But have no fear. There are no "real" madrigal songs on display here. Rather, the songs are homophonic old English Christmas carols on the one hand, and a lot of really good, contemporary American songs on the other. And some poetry, including favorites by Shakespeare, Dante and Robert Frost. And all of this is framed within the device of a medieval banquet. Which, as it turns out, is actually a commonplace American high school choral tradition, the "Madrigal Dinner," complete with Renaissance Faire costumes, a court jester, some comedy, some romance, a little religious sentiment, and a lot of smells and tastes.
I don't think this sort of thing is very authentic, as it turns out, but to Americans it doesn't sound very far-fetched. Think King Arthur mixed with King Henry VIII, needing food and entertainment in December. Yes, apparently Americans believe that Europeans actually once held these sorts of night-time winter banquets, with rehearsed live singing to boot. In "A Very Merry Madrigal," there's even a King and Queen chosen painlessly from the audience! And so, we buy it. We believe in it, and we want to enjoy it. It's well sung, convincingly acted. The problem? The whole thing is dispatched in just under an hour!
Heimann has gathered six talented singer-actors, and somebody (Heimann?) has written some framing dialogue, whereby the six, clad in medieval garb, welcome us to their feast/entertainment. They get to sing the traditional English "Wassail, Wassail" and "The Boar's Head Carol," Gustav Holst's lovely "In the Bleak Midwinter," and Thomas Morley's "Sing We and Chant It." These expected a capella December staples are presented in a revue format next to such delights as the Bacharach-David "Turkey Lurkey Time" (a major production number here, just as it is in the musical, "Promises, Promises"), Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," and Sara Bareilles' "Love Is Christmas," which provides the show with its emotional climax.
Everyone in the audience gets a cup of tasty wassail (apple cider) and some "Figgy Pudding" (a sweet bread dessert in a cup), and those patrons who've purchased a full meal in advance (in Theo Ubique tradition) get what smelled to me like a very savory dinner of Roasted Cornish Hen. The cast, led by the jester-clad Sarah Grant, and by the character man Tom Chiola and his wife, the belty Missy Aguilar (fine job on the Bareilles), also includes the young lovely maid Molly Kral and two young suitor types, Greg Foster (who delivered an excellent recitation of Frost's "Stopping By Woods") and Andrew Sickel (apparently the more leading man of the two, as he won the hand of Kral by the end of the show). These two fellows also did an excellent mash-up of Tori Amos' "Winter" and Joni Mitchell's "The River," by the way.
Chiola was saddled with some unusual lyrics paired with Sir Arthur Sullivan's "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" ("The Pirates of Penzance"), but he pulled it off, nonetheless. Grant anchored "Turkey Lurkey Time" with a fine soprano, and Kral knocked both the "Greasy Joan" speech from "Love's Labor's Lost" and "Santa Baby" out of the park, using one of those mid-house support poles effectively during the latter. Aguilar even delivered Anne Murray's "Snowbird" to start off the show's second half (post-pudding). There are other songs as well, all done well.
At some point in the show's development, the announced idea of having the cast perform on guitar, mandolin, flute and oboe was abandoned, as Ramey's piano was the only accompaniment (indeed, many songs needed none). Perhaps that idea can come to fruition next year. I'm hoping that the show will have a new edition for 2014, because of course there are about a trillion Christmas and winter songs that can be used in this context, and I just felt like the show was too short!
I think the audience may have agreed with me, as nobody got up to leave when it was over. We had been transported into the middle ages that never quite existed (at least not with the term "madrigal" attached), but we didn't get to spend near enough time there. The last number in the show, the "Christmas Can-Can" by Walter Chase (written for the pop a capella group Straight No Chaser) was superb, evoking the "Ed Sullivan Show" tribute from "Forever Plaid" with its zany use of props and fast musical edits. And then? We wanted more! More Tudor holiday anthems. More carols with decidedly European imagery (cherry trees, holly berries and the like). More contemporary songs about winter and renewal, love and reflection. More, more!
Please, Theo! Can't we have some more?
A VERY MERRY MADRIGAL runs at the No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Avenue in Chicago's Rogers Park neighborhood, through December 22, 2013, directed by David Heimann. Tickets are $25 ($15 for children under 12), which includes wassail and Figgy Pudding dessert. For tickets and more information, call 800-595-4849 or visit www.theo-u.com/.
PHOTO CREDIT: David Heimann