Story written by John and Ruby Luciano for The Jefferson Chronicle.
Judging by audience reactions to each of the three Madrigal performances, the 32nd Annual Olde English Feast at the Jefferson Township High School (JTHS) was a huge success. Music, songs, and comical skits joined with a seven-course feast to the thrilling sound of “Huzzahs” and laughter from the audience on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, December 8-10. But something was different about this set of performances as they marked a bittersweet milestone for the JTHS community.
This was the last Madrigal for choir director and JTHS icon, James Wynne, the person who created and conceived this tradition 32 years ago, and wrote, directed, choreographed, and played the harpsicord for all these years. Wynne is retiring at the end of this school year, much to the chagrin of the underclassmen who wished to have his hand to guide them through future Madrigals.
“Doing the Madrigal and working with all these generations of young people has been a true joy in my life,” Wynne said at the cast party after the final performance on Sunday. “I hope you students and you parents will push for the Madrigal to continue with the new choir director.”
For 32 years, during the holiday season, the cast, crew, and parent volunteers transform the student cafeteria and connecting hallways into a medieval English castle. Over 30 students assume roles and costumes as king, queen, knights, princesses, knaves, ladies in waiting, jester, town crier, and visiting guests from surrounding lands – and even other times, thanks to the “magic” of Merlin the Magician. Dozens more volunteer to serve the feast. And dozens of parents and former students show up to build the set, decorate the halls, support and feed the performers through rehearsals and test performances, and break down the set so that school can start as normal on Monday morning.
Wynne’s scripts build upon themselves each year, with students reprising roles until they graduate and pass them on to younger students. There are plenty of songs (some traditional, some written just for the Madrigal), music, and lively comic skits that often take on modern themes and current events. For example, this year’s performances featured Sir Donald Trumpet and Lord Governor Christopher Christie as guest characters.
The audience is treated to a seven course meal, served by “wenches” and “knaves,” and there are several audience participation skits during the performance. Staples each year include a rousing, competitive singing of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” by the cast and audience, knighting and ladies-in-waiting induction ceremonies for young people from the audience, and the “beheading” of an audience member who “failed to pay his or her taxes.”
The performances showcase the wide-range of talent JTHS students bring to bear each year. Acting, singing, dancing, and creativity are all on display. Yes, there are mistakes and flubs, but such is the comradery of the participants that even those become part of the play. Many parents often comment on how the event creates a strong community among the students, and even among the parents who work hard to support them.
As Wynne had announced his retirement earlier in the school year, the students were prepared for this being his last Madrigal. On Sunday, they broke into performance before the last song to, in character, bring Sir Wynne up for a tribute. Bill Wilson, as the Town Crier, and Yves Turgeon, as King Charles, spoke about how Wynne had created the Olde English Feast 32 years ago and has been its guiding force every year. The emotions of both Wynne and the students were palpable, and the audience gave him a rousing standing ovation, the only time clapping instead of shouting “Huzzah” was tolerated the entire evening.
The cast then sang “Silent Night” as they filed in a procession out into the hallway, holding candles. They, too, got a long, standing ovation from the audience. Later at the cast party, the cast and adult volunteers joined with Wynne for one last Madrigal celebration. Many of the younger students vowed to keep the Madrigal going, but that will have to be discussed with the new choir director. Although Wynne still has the student concerts, spring musical, and chamber choir trip coming in the remainder of the school year, it was obvious that this last Madrigal was something special. Huzzah, Mr. Wynne – and huzzah to the talented young performers who brought his imagination to life.