Ride 'Em Valkyries

Imagine country-western heartthrob Clint Black inhabiting the body of Wagner's romantic hero Siegfried and you'll get the spirit of Das Barbecu, the Hee-Haw-inspired adaptation of Wagner's Ring cycle. Yes, that Ring cycle. It's the same nineteenth-century opera series --- Das Rheingold, Die Walkurie, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung -- that retells the proto-Germanic myth of Siegfried and the curse-laden golden ring, among other things.

Das Barbecu, now at the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, is a spoof of Wagner's overwrought masterpiece, set in modern-day Texas and sporting original nonoperatic music. Clocking in at two and a half hours in length, it's also a distilled version of the original three-day Ring cycle. Abridging the monstrous nineteenth-century work must have been no small task. Flashbacks are utilized, of course, and there's a narrator. But giants, Norns, rivermaidens, star-crossed lovers, Siegfried, Wotan, Brunnhilde, Gutrune, and the whole gang of Teutonic trillers all make their appearances, thanks to the cast of five troupers blessed with Broadway-caliber voices.

Quick costume changes abound. So do sequins, lassos, and a gigantic vat of guacamole. Ditto for kitsch-inspired lyrics: "I could eat a/Pound of Velveeta," goes one song in which two recently dumped women stuff themselves at the barbecue feast of the title. As for the epic theme itself, it now begins, "There's a ring of fire in Texas...."

The show, originally commissioned by the Seattle Opera and nominated in 1995 by the New York Outer Critics Circle as best off-Broadway musical after it was produced by the Goodspeed Opera of Connecticut, is a mixture of pop-culture send-up, opera parody, and valentine to Wagner. That is, if Wagner had ever let his characters address each other by referring to "your sorry little ass." It also has a heady dose of the very cornpone it aims to fry. Das BarbecY played off-Broadway, but it could easily play in Vegas till the cows come home.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Wagner -- or musical theater, really -- can find his or her way around the love story at the center of the musical. And if you don't know an opera from a bottle opener, the creators (book and lyrics by Jim Luigs, music by Scott Warrender) guide you smoothly through the labyrinthine story line.

As one of the rivermaidens -- they're outfitted like TV cowgirls -- explains it early in the show: "All y'all got to know is that here is this magic ring that has been bouncin' around from fool to crook and back again for years, until along comes this singin' cowboy named Siegfried who takes possession of the ring, which he freely gives to the gal he loves, and she loves him back, and she wears his ring proudly."

Got that? Actually, there's more. For one thing, about 30 other characters are involved, including supernatural ones. The dwarf Alberich thwarts Siegfried's attempts to hold on to the ring. The Valkyries -- the creatures in Germanic myth who transport dead heroes to the afterlife in Valhalla -- appear here as a hybrid of Texas longhorns and kitschy stagecoach horses with miner's lights on their heads.

And let's not forget the star-crossed lovers. Gutrune is Siegfried's betrothed, whom he conveniently forgets about after meeting Brunnhilde, daughter of Wotan, the guy who rules Valhalla. Sound confusing? Don't worry, you'll be able to follow it.

Banish any thought about Wagner being Hitler's favorite composer. The basic story -- which Wagner stole from Das Nibelungenlied, a twelfth-century epic poem -- is the only thing that's truly Teutonic here. Also, erase any memory of the Wagner score. Unlike, say, a Peter Sellars adaptation of Handel or Mozart -- in which the original music is retained but the setting is updated to modern-day Beirut or New York -- Luigs and Warrender's angle on Wagner is pure popularization.

Partially because of that, Das BarbecY doesn't have the emotional range of even the most superficial romantic comedy. Once you get the joke, you may get a little restless. But what Das BarbecY loses in bathos, it makes up for in comedy.

Indeed, Wagner would probably have taken a liking to Texas, with its larger-than-life image and its population of chauvinistic, big-bodied bruisers. The entire notion of Valhalla -- apparently located near modern-day Dallas -- could have been invented by a Texan.

Perhaps by Wotan -- the powerful father of Siegfried's love Brunnhilde -- who is played in this production by a half-regal, half-scuzzy guy with an eye patch and about six feet of leg room. (Actor Jerry Gulledge not only looks like he rules Valhalla but also masterfully portrays Gunther, Hagen, a giant, and a Texas Ranger.)

Siegfried is indeed a singing cowboy. Actor Francisco Padura (also checking in as Alberich the dwarf, Milam Lamar, a giant, and a Norn, one of the three goddesses who determine human fate) bears more than a passing resemblance to Clint Black. Or at least he does once he's outfitted in black jeans and cowboy hat. Siegfried is pursued by Marcia McClain's hapless Gutrune, a spurned bride who wears a similar Western-wear get-up, though hers includes a bouquet and a matching floor-length wedding veil. (McClain is also alluring as a Norn, a Texas Ranger, a Valkyrie, Freia, and a rivermaiden.)

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