« Princess Classics, Disney | Main | What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? »

Das Barbecu, New York Times Review

THEATER REVIEW; The Gods Transplanted To Texas
Published: November 11, 1994, Friday


Camp, once largely the province of gay men and the women who loved them, has been sure-footedly working its way into the mainstream over the last several decades. John Waters movies can be seen at local malls; "Twin Peaks" was, however briefly, a television hit, and aging starlets like Joan Collins have translated the sensibility into flourishing second careers.

A theatrical byproduct of this phenomenon has been a new breed of musical, at once nostalgic and ironic, that embraces what it purports to send up. It dates back at least to the 1960's and "Little Mary Sunshine," reached a high point in 1982 with "Little Shop of Horrors" and has recently spawned a host of goofy, 1950's and 60's-style revues like "Forever Plaid" and "Beehive."

This co-opting of what was once prickly and subversive into the realm of the blandly digestible has been given nearly perfect form in "Das Barbecu," a slick, affable and perky retelling of Wagner's "Ring" cycle (or, more specifically, "Gotterdammerung") with a Texas twang. The show, which opened last night at the Minetta Lane Theater after popular incarnations throughout the country, takes subjects that have long been the target of both high camp (Teutonic opera) and low camp (country-western heartbreak ballads and prime-time soap operas about oil barons).

The show, directed by the talented Christopher Ashley, then mixes these elements into what is essentially a slightly risque, old-fashioned musical with a mildly arch veneer. The result is middle camp, something you could happily take the kids to.

The musical, with a book and lyrics by Jim Luigs and music by Scott Warrender, was commissioned by Speight Jenkins, the general director of the Seattle Opera, as a sort of lightweight counterpoint to the heaviness of Wagner's epic cycle in repertory there. Mr. Jenkins reportedly requested that the project in no way spoof the conventions of Wagner or opera in general.

This left the show's creators with one conceptual joke: the idea of translating the labyrinthine plot of "Gotterdammerung" to a Texas setting while capitalizing on that state's penchant for tall tales and grandiose self-mythologizing. Accordingly, the one-eyed god Wotan (J. K. Simmons) is turned into a randy billionaire with an eye patch; his wife, Fricka (Julie Johnson), is a sharp-tongued, muumuu-wearing matron who holds a grudge against Wotan for letting her sister Freia (Carolee Carmello) be carried off by the giant contractors who built Valhalla, their garish family estate.

And when Siegfried (Jerry McGarity) rescues Brunnhilde (Sally Mayes) from the ring of fire, she looks at the trouble-making piece of jewelry from which Wagner's cycle takes its title, and asks, "Where'd ya get that ring? From a Mexican border town?"

Actually, "Das Barbecu" isn't much of a satire. The only thing it really makes fun of is the absurd intricacies of Wagnerian plots. (This allows one particularly funny scene in which two gossipy wedding guests reminisce about the days when they used to toast marshmallows and neck with boyfriends by that old ring of fire.) Basically, it's a protracted exercise in translating stylistic excesses from one culture into another.

Some of these translations are charming in their silliness: the Rhinemaidens become sniffle-plagued acrobatic swimmers on eternal display, and the Valkyries are sweetly crooning, ghostly ranger types with horned hats and flashlights. Eduardo Sicangco's scenery and costumes are ingenious in conveying the same spirit of tacky glamour.

The text and the score hold few surprises, though. The jokes are often based in the kind of insult humor currently popular on sitcoms and cute similes like, "He's as dead as a deep-fried chigger." Mr. Warrender's songs are mostly forgettable (a duet about two jilted brides' gorging at a barbecue is an exception) but tuneful, ranging from sprightly hoedown numbers and sentimental country waltzes to big inspirational ballads (delivered straight-faced) that might have come from "Shenandoah."

Mr. Ashley's direction is as smooth as chiffon pie, as is the appealing, five-member cast, who sing and dance in a variety of styles and portray an astonishing 30 cartoonish characters without ever showing the strain.

Neither they nor the show itself, however, ever goes over the top, as you may wish, into their own Valhalla of sublime excess. No, "Das Barbecu" sticks, with considerable skill and polish, to its predetermined course: right down the middle of the road.

DAS BARBECU Book and lyrics by Jim Luigs; music by Scott Warrender; directed by Christopher Ashley; scenery and costumes by Eduardo Sicangco; lighting by Frances Aronson; sound by T. Richard Fitzgerald; musical supervision and dance arrangements by Michael Kosarin; orchestrations by Bruce Couglin; musical direction by Jeff Halpern; music coordination by John Miller; production stage manager, Karen Moore; co-producers, Mitchell Maxwell and Alan Schuster; associate producer, Marc Routh; musical staging by Stephen Terrell. Presented by Thomas Viertel, Steven Baruch, Richard Frankel, Jack Viertel, Dasha Epstein, Margery Klain, Leavitt/ Fox/Mages and Daryl Roth. At the Minetta Lane Theater, 18 Minetta Lane, Greenwich Village. WITH: Carolee Carmello, Julie Johnson, Sally Mayes, Jerry McGarity and J. K. Simmons.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend