PALMYRA — Summoned by the king, the court jester enters stage right — the cafeteria transformed into a Renaissance-period castle — and pauses a moment for thought.
“What was the king called who sat at the round table and wrote books?” she asks, looking about at the baffled faces of the king’s court. Then much to the court’s amusement she answers, “King Author!”
It’s the Palmyra-Macedon Select Choir’s 21st annual Madrigal Dinner, and this year’s event sold out in a record two weeks.
Planning starts for high school music teacher and Choir Director Jill Davis in March, followed by auditions for the dinner’s skits in August. But this is no ordinary dinner or concert for Pal-Mac. Davis is joined by students, Booster Club parents, alumni and the community to make the uniquely Pal-Mac performance happen.
“I think it takes a community to support an effort like this,” Davis said. “We rely on and are greatly supported by the community and businesses for the dinner with supplies and food.”
The choir’s biggest fundraiser of the year, a madrigal is a secular piece of choral music from the Renaissance period. Started by former vocal director Ann Beaucage, Davis said the dinner’s script and music change every year to keep audiences returning year after year. This year’s skit, written by Paul Branbvik, is called, “The Truth Fairy.” The dinner also includes wandering minstrels, a full meal, rose and headdress sales, a choral concert and new this year, a bell choir. The Booster Club will also sell baked goods at Ye Olde Bake Shoppe and set up a craft table with wares to sell. All proceeds from the dinner goes back to the choir to help fund their trip to New York City in the spring, where they will perform.
“What’s unique about it is that it’s not catered,” Davis said. “Everything is done in house.”
Parents plan, shop, cook and clean up afterwards, said Booster Club President Barbra Vassallo, who equates the dinner to planning a wedding. As soon as the school year starts, the club begins thinking about all that needs to be done. It’s a true team effort, she said, and over the years they have learned best practices, which go into what Vassallo calls “The Big Book of Everything.” The book is handed down to each new incoming Booster Club president. Vassallo’s son graduates this year, so she has been preparing her protege, Shannon Kirbis, to take over next year.
The night before the dinner, Booster Club parents and students convert the high school cafeteria into a typical Renaissance castle.
“We leave the night before exhausted from transforming the cafeteria, but it’s worth it,” Kirbis said. “Then when we watch it — it’s amazing.”
For those who have spent countless hours preparing for the dinner, to see the students perform and the audience enjoy the dinner and songs is an emotional time.
“The tears are flowing,” Vassallo said. “But mostly, I’m in awe to see it all come together.”
All 32 members of the Select Choir will take part in the animated dinner, modeled after a typical big dinner event from days of old. An additional 36 students help serve the meal, and Booster Club parents as well as several alumni parents return to help prepare the dinner in the school’s kitchen. Davis credits head chefs Jerry Koehler and Bill Leibenguth for their talents in the kitchen. Behind the scenes there are two guest costumers, Dorcas Lynch and Diane Roof, who alter outfits for the students and even create new ones as the need arises.
“I don’t know how it started, but I’m very glad it did,” Davis said of her predecessor Beaucage’s initiative. “Not only is it entertaining for patrons, it’s educational for the kids, and it’s just plain fun.”
For the students, the dinner is something like the icing on the cake.
“It’s the peak, the star at the top of the tree,” Daniel Wasserlauf said. “It’s the thing we work the hardest for each year.”
This year’s performance is senior Wasserlauf’s third. His favorite role is that of storyteller, roaming from table to table sharing often improvised stories and drawing audience members into his fabrications.
“The whole time we are in character 100 percent,” he said.
Sophomore Molly St. Thomas, who will be selling roses for her first dinner performance, was a volunteer student server last year. She said the castle-like settig helps them stay in character.
“No matter what role you have, it’s real fun because you have to stay in character all the time,” she said.
“Madrigal can be very cheesy,” added junior Britini Stupin. “But if we stay in character, it’s a lot of fun.”
Stupin will be among the traveling quartets singing special performances table-side. The winter concert is her favorite, but with all the practice and private vocal lessons the choir requires, she finds it amazing to see not only her own personal growth, but the growth of her peers. The hard work brings them all closer together, she said.
Part of the fun includes the costumes. Stupin and St. Thomas enjoy picking costumes from the array of colorful dresses to choose from. Not so much for Wasserlauf, however.
“I’m fondly reminded of the Monty Python parody ‘Men in Tights’,” he quipped. “It’s one of those mental adjustments. But it’s almost hard to not be in character when you have the costume on.”
This year’s Madrigal Dinner will be held Saturday, Dec. 14, and Sunday, Dec. 15 in the Pal-Mac High School cafeteria. As St. Thomas performs in her first dinner, Wasserlauf will be giving his final Madrigal performance. But he doesn’t plan to be gone forever.
“We see more and more people return every year,” he said of the dinner. “I will make a point of coming back from college next year to come back here and see this.”