The annual Renaissance Madrigal Christmas Feast at the Omaha Marriott is equal parts Tony and Tina’s Wedding, Shakespeare, Knights of the Round Table and Food Network theme show. That is if the theme is a Saxon bacchanal. A food orgy all wrapped up in a fancy dinner theater bow.
For four nights in December the ballroom is transformed into an old English castle hosting a seasonal holiday celebration, circa 1600. Royals, attendants, escorts, a court jester, a kitchen wench and carolers are among the costumed characters greeting guests December 6-9 at the Marriott, 10220 Regency Circle.
More than 20 years in the running, this recreation of Christmas past is one of the metro’s longest-running holiday events. It also qualifies as a regional draw because of the holiday bus tours it attracts from around the region.
The music, dance, comedy and drama are not exactly add-ons, but they are most definitely in service of the multi-course meal prepared by the Omaha Marriott kitchen staff. The feast features authentic dishes from the period.
The evening’s printed menu runs 12 separate lines long. The meal starts light, with spiced wassail and a green salad dressed with a tangy vinaigrette, but then the high caloric items come hot and heavy. Cream of broccoli soup. The star entree, carved sirloin with Bordelaise sauce, is served with Yorkshire Pudding, parslied potatoes, baby carrots and Green Beans Amandine. Rolls and butter for good measure.
The decadently rich, dense fare extends to a dessert of bread pudding and rum sauce.
Coffee and tea come with the meal. For those with a taste for something stronger, a cash bar serves all the usual spirits.
It’s the kind of heavy feasting that calls for a week of fasting afterwards.
“There’s a lot of food but then it’s called a feast, so nobody leaves hungry,” says co-founder and director Dwayne Ibsen. “It’s a very hardy meal, and then it finishes with a pretty heavy-duty dessert, and so we always have people who can only get through about half…”
Madrigal singer Howard Swain says the food is fit for a king.
“We in the cast smell it as the courses are coming out and it smells really good. One year we all decided we want to taste this darn meal, so we had it after the show one night. Oh boy, we’re we impressed. The food is really good.”
But the play’s the thing, too. Ibsen, owner of Ibsen Costume Gallery, designs the elaborate costumes worn by actors, singers, even wait staff.
He says the show “doesn’t really have a story — it’s just a celebration, and its funny.” He says his script has changed over the years. “We’ve added and we’ve subtracted and created new characters.”
The spectacle is a major attraction.
“It’s all about the costume,” says Ibsen. “Everybody loves when the queen comes in because it’s a spectacular white Elizabethan costume we entered in the National Costumers Association competition and won a huge award with.”
That costume and the other authentic pieces Ibsen makes for the madrigal have their lone annual appearance at the event.
Swain, an Omaha stage veteran, loves the “high theater” but especially the singing.
“Even though it’s very light-hearted and entertaining for the audience, these madrgals are probably some of the most difficult music you could ask a singer to sing,” he says. “Our music director Jerry Gray has refined it to the point now that it’s being sung and interpreted probably as close to the way it was originally written and originally intended to be performed as anything you’re going to hear.”
For Jan Sandoz, who co-founded the event with Ibsen and plays the Countess of Essex, performing a capella is the thrill. “I love that it’s a traditional Christmas performance without a lot of fancy lighting or a sound system. This is all done without any amplification, so it’s true madrigal music.”
Sandoz says the show also offers “a great way to get in the Christmas spirit.” She, Swain and other cast members who return year after year form a tight bond. Ibsen says the closeness extends to the audience, many of whom are regulars: “It’s really fun because it’s like family getting together for a holiday. That’s really what it is.”
A warming hour starts at 6 p.m. Guests are escorted to their seats at 6:45. The dinner and show commence at 7. The revelry concludes at 9:20. Tickets are $50 and include dinner, show and gratuity. Purchase tickets at Ibsen Costume Gallery, 4981 Hamilton Street, or call 556-1400. Group reservations at 346-4398, ext. 109.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com