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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.)

Gutrune's rival for Siegfried's love -- she's also the object of the potbellied Gunther's desire -- is Brunnhilde, played by Rachel Jones (also a Norn, a Texas Ranger, and a rivermaiden). As romantic leads Siegfried and Brunnhilde, Padura and Jones carry a great deal of the show; however, the entire cast -- which includes the deft Lourelene Snedecker as the narrator and six other parts -- creates the illusion of a backstage filled with a populace the size of Bayreuth.

What's especially charming is the way the production plays like a happy marriage of Broadway production values (Rachel Jones' stunning voice, for example) and backyard theater sensibility (evidence of earlier costume changes is frequently visible under characters' clothing). Likewise the music is a mix of easy listening country radio tunes, novelty songs, and traditional two-steps. "Makin' Guacamole" is a Hank Williams kind of tune sung by Gutrune and her parents in anticipation of a wedding feast. "If Not For You" is a snappy comic number in which Wotan and Alberich discuss the ways their lives are interwoven. ("If not for you," the dwarf tells Wotan, "I'd be tall.")

The one scene that's truly over the top in the manner of traditional opera -- in dramatic proportion if not in musical thrust -- contains "Barbecue For Two," a hilarious send up of binge-eating by the lovelorn. In it one singer asks "What's that lurkin'/Under that gherkin?" before stuffing herself sick.

A steady diet of this stuff can make a theatergoer want something a bit more substantial. That's why "Slide a Little Closer," a love ballad sung by Siegfried and Brunnhilde, sticks out as the rare emotional touchpoint of the evening. Padura and Jones sing with genuine, twang-filled voices, but they're so masterful, you want to send them straight to a Nashville recording studio. And the song, which comes on the eve of tragedy, is nearly heartbreaking.

Less engaging are some of the minor scenes. Apparently included to be true to the original work, they simply make the show longer than it needs to be. Freia may be a big part of the Wagner epic, but, in the smaller universe of Das Barbecu, we don't need to worry our heads about her, even if the giants who build her house are adorable.

Actually, the whole show is adorable -- from Mary Lynne Izzo's daffy costumes (are those Norn sisters wearing red leather chaps under their granny nightgowns?) to M.P. Amico's marvelous sets and Barbara LeGette's lively choreography. Actors' Playhouse artistic honcho David Arisco directs with a sure hand. (Credit Arisco with bringing the show here, too.) Tom Dillickrath's musical direction is innovative and intelligent.

As for the lasting impact of Das Barbecu, by the time the Valkyries show up to drag Siegfried off, you still may not know some of the finer -- or even broader points -- of Wagner's masterpiece. But that knowledge is not really necessary. Das BarbecY stands on its own. And, as one character puts it, if you don't know why Brunnhilde was asleep for 20 years, "Don't ask."

Das Barbecu.
Inspired by Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen. Book and music by Scott Warrender and Jim Luigs. Musical direction by Tom Dillickrath. Directed by David Arisco. Starring Lourelene Snedeker, Jerry Gulledge, Marcia McLain, Rachel Jones, and Francisco Padura. Through June 28. Actors' Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, 305-444-9293.

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Robin Dougherty

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