By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Squeezing Wagner's four-opera, 17-hour Der Ring des Nibelungendown to two hours and 20 minutes leaves no room for the fire-breathing dragon. For Das Barbecü, a two-act spoof of the operas now onstage at Addison's WaterTower Theatre, composer Scott Warrender and writer-lyricist Jim Luigs do that, no problem. But instead of the dragon, they drag out warmed-over Texas bull.
Das Barbecü lifts the livelier parts of Wagner's epic Valhalla myths--Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfriedand Gotterdammerung--and transplants them not so successfully to "Rancho Gibich" in present-day Texas. Now chief god Wotan is a one-eyed, Stetson-sportin' good ol' boy rancher (played by Jim Johnson) with a wife named Fricka (Jenny Thurman) who refers to Wotan's mistress Erda (Thurman again) as "that subterranean psychic slut." Brünnhilde (Stacia Goad) waltzes out in an Annie Oakley skirt to twang country-style love songs to Siegfried (Paul Taylor), who happens to be both her boyfriend and her nephew. Siegfried, rightful owner of a magic gold ring, is altar-bound with Brünnhilde till he gets slipped a Mickey Finn at a honky-tonk and wakes up engaged to the giggly Gutrune (KeLeen Snowgren), one of Erda's eight evil daughters by Wotan. Hagen, an "evil half-dwarf with narcolepsy" (Johnson), and Alberich (Taylor), a dwarf on wheels, conspire to steal the magic ring from Siegfried. The Walkyries, who make only a brief appearance, are "that horsey bunch from Waxahachie." Brünnhilde goes into a 20-year coma, and Siegfried ends up roasted in a huge barbecue pit.
Character by character, scene by scene, this corny musical plays these same tired gags over and over, stretching itself thin as a tortilla. Das Barbecü is too long for such anemic material, like an all-evening Carol Burnett Showsketch (actress Stacia Goad even looks a lot like Burnett). There's one terrific song--the showstopper "River of Fire," sung stirringly by Johnson--and maybe three or four good, solid laughs. But the jokes all are derived from the same rusty-butted stereotype that assumes all Texans are stupid, goofy galoots clomping around in Tony Lamas, jaws packed with chawin' tabacky. How do Texans solve problems? "We either marry it, burp it, shoot it or move," says Fricka. Ga-hick, ga-hick.
Like an Ernest T. Bass episode of The Andy Griffith Show, Das Barbecü, which originated in 1991 as a commission by the Seattle Opera, shovels out bushels of grammatically challenged cornpone. "Look at 'em. Their aaaaahs is glazed over," Fricka says to the audience as she tries to Minnie Pearl her way through a simplified outline of Wagner's multi-layered plotlines. With five actors playing 30 characters, there's no frickin' way to keep up with it all.
The set, an amateurishly rendered carnival design by Christopher Paxston, features the enormous grill of Valhalla's smoke pit, so we also get a menu of food references. "Makin' s'mores is not technically considered foreplay," one of the jilted brides complains beside the ring of fire. Gutrune and Brünnhilde sing a Dolly Parton-esque duet, "Barbecue for Two," which ends with the women smeared with sauce and includes the line, "Yes, Virginia, there's a ham/to help you wallow in every swallow." The song "Makin' Guacamole" uses smushed avocado as a metaphor for the good life. "Any Texan can live solely/on a bowl of guacamole," they sing. Same number rhymes "confection" with "Texan." Pretty dippy.
The one truly laugh-out-loud moment in this hayride occurs in "After the Gold Is Gone," sung by Warrender and Luigs' version of the Rhinemaidens (protectors of Siegfried's magic ring). In Das Barbecü, the maidens become a trio of synchronized swimmers at "Aquamarena Springs." Onstage, swimsuit-clad Thurman, Goad and Snowgren bob up and down in a tank, performing precision choreography by Linda Leonard that includes three sets of inflatable "legs" that kick up for a hilarious sight gag when the actresses are submerged.
Other than that little gem, Das Barbecü is cabrito dressed as brisket. But bless their pea-pickin' little hearts, the five performers give it their all, singing and dancing and selling the heck out of the lousy jokes. WaterTower is a magnet for great local actors, and director James Lemons has assembled five fine ones for this cast--performers who are, in fact, too good for the material.
Jenny Thurman, making her third appearance at WaterTower in the past year, is a powerhouse singer (she was a sweet dream in the title role in WaterTower's Always...Patsy Cline), but she doesn't get enough snaps for her plentiful gifts as a comic actress. Stacia Goad also sings great and in this show gets a chance to flex her comedy muscles. But she was way funnier earlier this summer as the stage-mother-turned-diva in Uptown Players' Ruthless!KeLeen Snowgren has statuesque beauty (sort of a prettier Jennifer Tilly), a big voice and a cute way with her bimbo role as Gutrune.
The two men in the cast, Paul Taylor and Jim Johnson, play about a dozen roles each. Johnson has his best moment as Wotan, belting the lovely "River of Fire," but he's funny as all get-out as the cross-eyed, narcoleptic half-dwarf Hagen. When it looks like there's nothing much going on onstage, just watch Hagen doze.
Taylor makes his face scary-funny as the shrieking dwarf Alberich and then turns leading-man cute as the cow-eyed Siegfried. He gets to slow down the breathless pace of quick-changes for a romantic two-step with his beloved Brünnhilde on the melodic "Slide a Little Closer."
Satire, said playwright George S. Kaufman, is what closes on Saturday night. As opera satires go, Das Barbecüisn't the first to try to ride roughshod on the Ring Cycle. One who did it well was monologist Anna Russell, now 97. In her brilliantly funny 20-minute summary of Wagner's great work (available on a CD called The Anna Russell Album?), she plays piano and sings part of Brünnhilde's big aria and then says acidly, "As you can hear, it was obviously not her day." When Erda comes up from the depths in Das Rheingold and sings "Weiche, Wotan, weiche," Russell explains that means, "'Be careful, Wotan, be careful'...She then bears him eight daughters."
What's going on onstage at WaterTower isn't nearly that funny. A better show probably happens backstage, where the five performers toss different wigs, hats, dresses and boots on and off every minute or two. In 1999 the 55-minute documentary Sing Faster: The Stagehands' Ring Cycle(available on DVD) went backstage to follow the union crew of the San Francisco Opera as they grappled with the snapping jaws of a two-ton hydraulic dragon, plus fog machines and temperamental singers. During slow scenes, crew members played poker, gossiped about Wagnerian gods (and the monsters playing them) and balanced their checkbooks. The entire four-opera cycle is condensed to a breathtaking 60-second time-lapse sequence.
If only Warrender and Luigs' jokes were half that clever. As a musical comedy, their work offers music far more polished than their groaner comedy bits. Das Barbecü serves too many ribs that aren't well done.