Musical numbers:”A Ring of Gold in Texas,””What I Had in Mind,””Hog-Tie Your Man,””Makin’ Guacamole,””Rodeo Romeo,””County Fair,””Public Enemy Number .1,””A Little House for Me,””River of Fire,””If Not Fer You,””Slide a Little Closer, “”Barbecue for Two,””After the Gold Is Gone,””Wanderin’ Man,””Turn the Tide.”
The marketers might have to log some overtime selling a show that, in description, promises enough cuteness and corn pone to outsize the Lone Star State: a musical comedy in which Wagner’s “Ring” cycle is put to mock country-western tunes, dressed like a rhinestone cowboy and set deep in the heart of Texas. But any such efforts would be well worth the trouble. “Das Barbecu” is a charmer.
Arriving in New York three years after its commissioning by, and premiere at, the Seattle Opera, the Jim Luigs-Scott Warrender tuner has used the resident theater circuit to good effect. Stints at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House and Baltimore’s Center Stage have produced a polished, confident show with enough good humor — however hokey — to win over all but the most skeptical of audiences. A healthy run at the Minetta Lane Theater seems likely.
Under Christopher Ashley’s buoyant direction, “Das Barbecu” shows much the same blend of campy humor and infectious spirit as its most obvious influence (besides Wagner, of course) –“Little Shop of Horrors.” The score might not be quite up to the level of the memorable Menken-Ashman show, but it certainly won’t disappoint.
Nor will the terrific cast of five that covers more than 30 oddball and occasionally endearing characters. Three of the five — J.K. Simmons, Sally Mayes and Carolee Carmello — should be familiar to Gotham theatergoers from their previous good work (which they match here), while Jerry McGarity and, particularly, Julie Johnson are most welcome newcomers.
Opera buffs will be familiar with the basic outline of the story, but even Wagner illiterates will find their way through the Byzantine plotlines. Indeed, Luigs’ clever book makes the twists and turns — and potential audience confusion — part of the joke, providing “Das Barbecu” with a down-home narrator (Johnson) who occasionally stops the show with a gunshot or admonition to warn the cast against baffling the audience.
The story, as adapted, is this: Siegfried (McGarity), a guitar-strumming cowboy, has given his beloved cowgirl, Brunnhilde (Mayes), a magical ring of gold, only to find that his engagement plans have been thwarted by evil half-dwarf Hagan (Simmons). After the dwarf — a bartender at the local roadhouse who covets the magic ring — drugs Siegfried’s beer, the singing cowboy proposes to Gutrune (Carolee Carmello), a lovesick two-stepper whose usual attire can only be described as a wedding dress by way of the Grand Ol’ Opry complete with white cowboy hat and veil.
This is only one small byway of the storyline. The magic ring is the impetus for much maneuvering and shenanigans, with the story moving back and forth in time to tell the ring’s supernatural history, introducing any number of giants, dwarves, witches, river maidens and Valkyries along the way. Of course, the goings-on are given a big Texas spin, with Eduardo Sicangco setting just the right tone with his brazenly gaudy cowpoke costumes and sets that are equal parts “Giant” and Metropolitan Opera shrunk to Off Broadway scale.
If an opera was the inspiration for “Das Barbecu,” Luigs and Warrender bring everything right back to the musical theater world. The tuneful, catchy score plays with country and cowboy stylings, but the easy mix of comic numbers and ballads owes more to conventional show tunes than to the Sons of the Pioneers. The songwriting team also has a sharp theatrical eye for giving their talented cast some real showcases, from the funny “Barbecue for Two,” in which Brunnhilde and Gutrune both sing and eat their sorrows away, to the sweet Siegfried-Brunnhilde duet “Slide a Little Closer.”
And the cast more than keeps up its end of the bargain. Mayes, who nearly stole the recent Broadway production of “She Loves Me,” is as good a singer as she is a comic actress. Carmello gets another chance to show off the voice that impressed in last year’s “Hello Again,” adding to it a flair for broad comedy that prompts many of “Das Barbecu’s” heartiest laughs. Biggest surprise, though, is Johnson, making her New York debut and putting her large voice, Texas accent and comic timing to impressive use.
Ashley, best known for his direction of such WPA Theater productions as “Jeffrey,””The Naked Truth” and “Bella, Belle of Byelorussia,” is by now an experienced hand at this type of camp material, and he finds just the right balance between genuine delight in the corny jokes — and they are plentiful — and the knowing wink at the audience. Even if the hokum of “Das Barbecu” isn’t to everyone’s taste, few could deny the appeal with which it’s served up by Ashley and his team.