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Das Barbecu

Wagner turns Texan in New Rep's musical production. Iris Fanger goes for the gun-totin' Gesamtkunstwerk. logo
From Das Barbecu
If you considered it chutzpah to take on T.S. Eliot (Cats) and Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) for the musical stage, how about the chops to condense Richard Wagner's massive Ring Cycle into a sassy two-hour-plus transformation that includes a move to the Lone Star state? Put the blame--or praise, in this case--on Jim Luigs, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Scott Warrender, who wrote the score, for Das Barbecu. New Repertory Theatre is presenting the Boston-area premiere of the musical, which was originally commissioned by the Seattle Opera and was later produced Off-Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theater.

Luigs and Warrender have imagined a startling theatrical "what if," portraying the mythical gods, demi-gods, heroes, and villains who inhabit Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk (the 19th century German composer's term for a unified art work) as gun-toting, guitar-slinging cowboys and gals crooning out their miseries in a country-Western twang. The authors have exchanged the Wagnerian practice of sung speech alternating with arias for dialogue interspersed by a series of songs that help to explain the complex relationships between the characters. (Perhaps a number such as "I'm My Own Grandpa" would have helped, given the unsavory family affairs that animate the ancient myths on which Wagner based his work).

Das Barbecu opens with the upbeat number: "A Ring of Gold in Texas," which sets the carnival-like tone for the entire show and serves to explain the quest for the magic ring that drives the action. The score includes such hilarious ditties as "Hog-Tie Your Man," an advice-to-the-lovelorn ballad, and the romantic "Slide a Little Closer," which envisions Siegfried and Brunhilde gliding along the dance floor in a Texas two-step waltz.

You don't need to be an opera buff to have a terrific time at director Rick Lombardo's fast-paced production, although some of the laughs at odd places came from folks who obviously knew their Nibelungun. Lombardo has been well-served by his collaborators: Steven Bergman as musical director, keyboardist, and conductor of the backstage orchestra; Ilyse Robbins as choreographer; designer Janie E. Howland, who contributes as the backdrop a splendid blown-up map of Texas with Wagnerian geography dropped in; and Eduardo Sicangco's costumes from the Off-Broadway production.
From Das Barbecu
Despite all the trappings and Lombardo's impeccable sense of timing, the show belongs to the quintet of agile actors--Tommy Day Carey, Chip Phillips, Bridget Brady, Kathy St. George, Amy White--forming an ensemble that snaps off each other as if attached by rubber bands. Impersonating 35 different characters in a breathless display of costume changes and personality tics, they bring a sense of fun to the proceedings--not a frame of mind ordinarily associated with the maestro-worship at Bayreuth.

Each of the actors also manages to bring their incarnations to life in specific ways. St. George, long a local favorite, is hysteric-inducing as the fork-tongued Fricka, dressed in a red trapeze frock over red tights, with cowboy hat to match. She's later transformed into a prune-faced old lady straight out of American Gothic, after a hot stint as a black-clad disco back-up singer. Phillips delivers his best work in a busy season for him, especially as the evil Hagen who moves across stage stoked by a propeller-like arm gesture. Amy White makes Brunhilde into an ingenue with an edge, looking fetching in her change-of-pace quiet solos. Carey creates an "aw-shucks" version of Siegfried, while Brady's whiney sex-kitten Y-Vonne, the wannabe bride, adds a reminder of the burlesque schtick to the multiple sources of the gags.

If not for a jarring direction towards sentimentality near the end (when Wotan seems to reform his greedy ways), the show stands as a delightful piece of message-free hokum. Sometimes a night at the theater need just be down-right entertaining.

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