The lights dimmed and the sound of a somber, muffled drum roll filled the great hall.
All eyes turned toward the balcony, where a spotlight focused on a court crier who announced:
"The king is dead. Long live the king!"
This bit of royal good news-bad news echoed throughout the cavernous room as members of the court, dressed in their flamboyant finery, repeated the crier's announcement:
"The king is dead. Long live the king!"
Forget that it's 1988 and that the 340 paying guests seated at long banquet tables are really on the Fine Arts Village Theater stage at UC Irvine.
Instead, imagine that, for the next 2 1/2 hours, the year is 1509 and the stage is Westminster Hall in England. After a 24-year reign, King Henry VII is dead, and Henry, the Prince of Wales, is--"with one voice and concert of tongue and heart"--proclaimed King Henry the VIII.
"Let the trumpet blow," shouted the crier. "Let the songs resound. Let the feast commence."
A brass fanfare reverberated through the hall, and the 11th annual UC Irvine Madrigal Dinner was under way.
It's billed as a "royal yuletide banquet of Renaissance England," and for 12 nights beginning Nov. 28 and concluding Dec. 14, the choral organizations of UCI present a re-creation of a Christmas celebration and banquet presided over by Henry VIII (this year played by John Peterson and Bruce Bales).
Peterson and Bales are among the more than 140 cast members and musicians who perform under the direction of music department Chairman Joseph Huszti, who teaches vocal and choral music. (Two casts split the run of the production.)
"It's different every night. That's the glory of live theater," said Huszti, looking like a Renaissance Dapper Dan in a black and gold-leaf tunic, green cape and black stockings and wearing a heavy silver and gold pendant around his neck.
Beneath colorful banners hanging from the walls, 40 "servants" carried in wassail, the traditional Christmas drink made of hot cider and spices.
That was followed by a feast of potato leek soup, chicken, beef with marshberries, fresh vegetables, and fruits and cheeses topped off by royal plum pudding.
Throughout the evening, guests were entertained with magic and mime by the court jester (Armando Lucero), caroling at the tables (including songs written by the original Renaissance man, Henry himself), dancing and a knighting ceremony.
The costumed cast, despite occasional attempts by the audience to lure them into the 20th Century, remained in character throughout the dinner, which concluded with the coronation of the young Henry, who was only 18 when he ascended to the throne.
Although a 21-page script keeps things flowing smoothly, improvisation is the order of the night as members of the court mingle with diners. Eyeing one man's red tie decorated with tiny Christmas trees, one royally costumed lady inquired what the strange "little figurines" were.
"Trees!" cried the lady's royal partner, taking a closer look and inquiring, "Are you a Druid, sir?"
For the 25,000 Orange County residents who have been entertained at the UCI Madrigal Dinner during the past decade, it's an evening to remember. And in the case of many guests, it's an evening to repeat year after year.
Robert and Joyce Vaughn of Newport Beach, at the dinner for the third year, played hosts to a table of eight friends.
"I love the music. I love the atmosphere--everything," said Robert Vaughn. "It's just a joyous occasion. They do a beautiful job."
Although the format remains the same, Vaughn said he enjoys the fact that a particular period in the life of Henry is spotlighted each year. At the 1987 dinner, Vaughn said, Henry was married to Katherine Parr (nee Lady Lattimer), "the only one of Henry's wives to keep her head."
Pointing to a guest at his table, Daniel Parr of Newport Beach, Vaughn said that Parr is a direct descendant of Henry's sixth wife and that last year Parr actually had a chance to dance with "Katherine."
"Back to the future," joked Parr's wife, Diana.
Which is precisely the point of the evening.
And for the past 11 years, Joe and Melinda Huszti, who serves as costume designer, have pulled the time-travel repast off royally with the help of students and volunteers.
They've come a long way since the first Madrigal Dinner when they had only a 2-night run in Gateway Commons.
That first year, the lighting consisted merely of turning a light switch on and off. This year, a computerized lighting system is manned by three professional lighting technicians who have more than 200 lighting cues. In fact, the lighting budget alone equals the first year's total budget of $4,700.
The Madrigal Dinner is a $90,000 production. But with sell-out audiences each night and with tickets costing $25 and $30, the dinner pays for itself. Profits go toward music scholarships to UCI and the choir's foreign concert tours.
From the start, the Husztis have emphasized authenticity, paying particular attention to re-creating "the feel" of the Renaissance.