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Das Barbecü

The Triad Stage production of this 1994 Wagner-meets-Texas musical struggles to make a point, satirical or otherwise.

By New York City
Jeffries Thaiss and Georgia Rogers Farmer in Das Barbecü
(Photo © G. Allen Aycock)
Jeffries Thaiss and Georgia Rogers Farmer in Das Barbecü
(Photo © G. Allen Aycock)
A couple of ripe targets for satire pop immediately into mind when you consider the prospect of transplanting Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelugen from the vicinity of Valhalla to metropolitan Dallas. On the one hand, you have the pretentious grandeur of Wagnerian opera. On the other hand, there's the outsized vulgarity of Texas -- and in the era of George W. Bush, we all know about that.

Sadly, the Triad Stage production of the 1994 Wagner-meets-Texas musical Das Barbecü struggles to make a point, satirical or otherwise. Most of the blame can be laid on creator Jim Luigs, who was commissioned to write this musical in 1991 by the Seattle Opera (famous for producing its own Ring Cycle). But neither does Triad artistic director Preston Lane doesn't impose his own vision on the material, allowing Das Barbecü to remain a weird kaleidoscope of slapstick comedy, sentimentality, and simple moralizing.

Luigs and composer Scott Warrender undertook a monumental task: condensing 15 hours of a colossal Gesamtkunstwerk (Wagner's word for a work that unifies the performing, literary, and visual arts) into a two-hour-and-10-minute musical written to be performed by five actors and five musicians. Their imperfect solution was to lean heavily on a narrator to fill in the blanks, to confine cartloads of Wagnerian characters to the wings, and to replace the original symphonic score with country-western pap. Ring neophytes may experience the exposition of Das Barbecü as an incomprehensible blur, while even experienced operagoers are likely to be puzzled by the show.

Siegmund and Sieglinde are distant memories when the action of the musical begins. Their heroic son, Siegfried, is already betrothed to Brünnhilde. There's just one catch: Gunther, who has eyes for Brünnhilde, has teamed with his half-brother Hagen to dupe the lovers. Under the influence of a love potion, Siegfried has fallen for Gutrune. This gives her brother, Gunther, a perfect opening for moving in on Brünnhilde, who's now convinced that she has been jilted. A wickedly mismatched double wedding is in the offing unless things get sorted out.

Lurking beneath this romantic intrigue is the plot centering on the ring that Siegfried has reclaimed from Brünnhilde. Here's where Alberich, the noxious dwarf who stole the ring in the first place, gets into the act. While he stalks Siegfried, the god Wotan is also interested in the power bestowed by the magical ring.

In retelling this tale, Luigs preoccupies himself with lightly lampooning Texas and whetting our appetite for Wagner. He doesn't remember the Alamo, Sam Houston, LBJ, or even the TV soap opera Dallas in mounting his assault, nor does he seem to have realized how aptly Wagner's Rhinemaidens could have morphed into the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. As for the score, Warrender toils futilely in the country-western vineyards with nary a reference to Wagner, let alone any pointed musical commentary. The "Slide a Little Closer" duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde is Warrender's best Texas shuffle, "Makin' Guacamole" is his best novelty number, and "Turn the Tide" is his one ballad that transcends treacle.

Most of the humor in this "Twilight of the Texans" resides in the radical downsizing of Wagner's iconography: Wotan is a stumpy cowpoke, Erda the Earth Mother is a seedy gypsy, Fafner and Fasolt are strapping hard-hat construction workers, Arberich is a prison escapee, and the Rhinemaidens are vapid synchronized swimmers. An extra kick comes from the frenetic pacing; Warrender's tunes are largely uptempo, plot points fly by with a swiftness that makes a mockery of the glacial slowness of Wagner's operas, and the cartoonish costume designs of Kelsey Hunt are whisked on and off with exhilarating speed. But with the constant swapping of wigs among the women -- labeled simply as Actors One, Two, and Three in the program -- I later had to send out an S.O.S. e-mail asking for identification of who played whom.

Brandishing a six-shooter and wearing a gauzy, miniskirted wedding dress, Brandy Zarle brings the right slatternly edge to Gutrune. While I don't quite understand the red wig and the pacific Dale Evans duds, Georgia Rogers Farmer has undeniable charm if not a lot of strength as Brünnhilde. Only Lisa Dames seems disoriented, perhaps believing that there's no difference between the Ring Cycle and the Patsy Cline cycle that she's accustomed to singing. As our Narrator, Dames often slurs invaluable exposition; and though I like the mystery of her Erda, she doesn't play Fricka with the Minnie Pearl-like quality that would seem to go with her dowdy costume.

The diminutive James Tunstall's amusing cowboy Wotan does eventually wear out his welcome, but this is not the case with his gnarled, twisted Gunther and Hagen. Tunstall's lanky cohort JeffriesThaiss is perennially winsome as Siegfried, and there's an impish dimension to his work as Alberich the dwarf as well as his Norn Triplet singing "Hog-Tie Your Man."

Sadly, the recipe for Das Barbecü has yielded a stew with too much sentimental goo and not nearly enough satirical spice or musical sophistication. Triad Stage's partly redeems these shortcomings with its gusto and musical polish, but insufficient irreverence on the part of the show's authors allows Texas, Wagner, and even George W. Bush to emerge unscathed. Pity.


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