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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 particular Ring cycle. It's the same nineteenth-century opera series (Die Gotterdammerung, Das Rheingold, Siegfried, and Die Walkurie) 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. Oh, and it's distilled from its original epic three-day running time down to about two and a half hours. Gotterdammerung, that's nifty. Never mind the Herculean task it must have been to abridge the monstrous nineteenth-century work. Flashbacks are used, of course, and there's a narrator. But Giants, Norns, Rivermaidens, star-crossed lovers, Siegfried, Wotan, BrYnhilde, Gutrune, and the whole gang of Teutonic trillers all make an appearance, 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 Outer Critics Circle as the best off-Broadway musical after it was produced by the Goodspeed Opera of Connecticut, is a mixture of pop-culture sendup, 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's also got 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 their 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 labyrinth.

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 stage 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 Brunhilde, daughter of Wotan, the guy who rules Valhalla. Sound confusing? Don't worry, you'll be able to follow it.

Banish any thoughts about Wagner being Hitler's favorite composer. The basic story -- which Wagner stole from Das Niebelungen, 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.

Partly 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 the show 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.

Or perhaps by Wotan, the powerful father of Brunhilde. Wotan is played by a half-regal, half-scuzzy guy with an eye patch and about six feet of leg. (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, his spurned bride, who wears a similar Western-wear getup. Hers includes a bouquet and a matching floor-length wedding veil. (McClain is also fetching as a Norn, a Texas Ranger, a Valkyrie, Freia, and a Rivermaiden.)

Gutrune's rival for Siegfried's love is Brunhilde, played by Rachel Jones (also a Norn, a Texas Ranger, and a Rivermaiden). As romantic leads Siegfried and BrYnhilde, Padura and Jones carry a great deal of the show; however, the entire cast, which includes the deft Lourelene Snedeker as the narrator and six other characters, creates the illusion of a backstage filled with as many people as Bayreuth.

What's especially charming is the way the production plays like a happy marriage of Broadway production values (Rachel Jones's stunning voice, for example) and back-yard theater sensibility (evidence of earlier costume changes is frequently visible under characters' clothing). Likewise, the music is a mix of E-Z listening country radio, 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 sendup 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 ballad sung by Siegfried and BrYnhilde, sticks out as the rare emotional touchpoint of the evening. Padura and Jones sing with genuine, twang-filled voices, but they're so talented 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 in fealty 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.

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 it's not really necessary. Das Barbecu stands on its own. And, as one character puts it, if you don't know why Brunhilde was asleep for twenty years, "Don't ask."

Das Barbecu.
Inspired by Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Niebelungen. Book and music by Scott Warrender and Jim Luigs; musical direction by Tom Dillickrath; directed by David Arisco; with Lourelene Snedeker, Jerry Gulledge, Marcia McClain, Rachel Jones, and Francisco Padura. Through June 28. Actors' Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 444-9293.


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