Like the legends of the American West, the characters in Wagner's opera cycle "Der Ring Des Nibelung" are larger than life. Apparently, this odd similarity inspired Jim Luigs and Scott Warrender to set the "Ring" cycle in Texas. Commissioned and premiered by the Seattle Opera, "Das Barbecu" targets a very specific audience.
Only those who know Wagner's opera plots thoroughly will understand all the jokes, and only those with a yen for broad slapstick will appreciate them. People without a Wagnerian background will still enjoy a lot of Warrender's clever lyrics and odd cowboy metaphors, but the show's main joke will be lost on them.The show has nothing to do with Wagner's music, which many would argue is the best part of the "Ring" cycle. The songs are either "Hee-Haw" style up-tempo numbers or hokey, torch-style ballads. Because the focus is on the lyrics, the music provides little more than a barbecue sauce flavored backdrop. Salt Lake Acting Company used a prerecorded minus track, and Mearle Marsh did a fabulous job with the synthesized orchestral arrangement, giving it an appropriate sparkle.
In the Salt Lake Acting Company production, the ballads "Wandering Man" (sung by Trudy Jorgensen-Price and Rock H. White) and "Turn the Tide" (Chambers, Jorgensen-Price and Patti M. Olsen) strike emotional chords in the audience and have universal appeal.
A few witty numbers like "After the Gold is Gone" (Olsen, Jorgensen-Price and Betsy West) and "Barbecue for Two" (Olsen and West) also hold the audience's attention with kitschy but clever lyrics. The latter is peppered with lyrical gems like "What's that lurkin' under the gherkin? Looks to be a quesadilla," as two heart-broken women go "from broken heart to heart attack" at the buffet table. The dialogue also features broad and sometimes crass similes like "My ego's been squattin' out back so long its behind is full of splinters," said by the desperate Gutrune on her wedding day.
There are, however, a few songs that don't quite come off, such as the cryptically off-color "Makin' Guacamole."
The "Ring" cycle's plot has some definite comic possibilities. When Gutrune explains her convoluted family situation, even Wagner novices chuckle at the absurdity. The narcoleptic dwarf Hagen (Gutrune's half-brother) also provides some quick laughs as he slips in and out of visions and is awakened only by the mention of food. It's a stroke of comic genius to set the River-maidens, who were fated to swim forever, as synchronized swimmers on an extremely tight performing schedule.
Five talented actors play four to seven parts each - including Mark Chambers who joined the cast only two weeks ago after Max Robinson broke his leg. On opening night, the quality of singing and comic timing were not yet up to the high standard Salt Lake Acting Company set in its last season. But that standard might be within reach over the summerlong run.