'RING' on the Range Take Wagner, add country-western, get 'Das Barbecu'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He composer has done a revue called "The Texas Chainsaw Manicurist." The playwright has written something called "Rock 'n' Roles from William Shakespeare."

The director once staged a play called "Buzzsaw Berkeley." Put these three together and what do you get?

If you said Richard Wagner, you've probably already heard of "Das Barbecu" -- a country-western version of the composer's "Ring" cycle that opens at Center Stage Wednesday.

In this version of Wagner's masterpiece, the Rhine Maidens are synchronized swimmers, the giants are construction workers, and at Rancho Gibich the Texas ranch hands are firing up the barbecue in preparation for a double wedding.

"Das Barbecu," written by composer Scott Warrender and librettist Jim Luigs, is becoming the most-produced new musical in regional theaters this season, and the show has also been optioned by New York producers for a possible run there.

The show debuted at the Seattle Opera in 1991 and subsequently received a workshop production last summer at the Goodspeed Opera House's Norma Terris Theatre in Connecticut, under the direction of Christopher Ashley, who is also directing at Center Stage. Separate productions are also scheduled at the Dallas Theater Center and the Asolo Theatre Company in Sarasota, Fla.

As peculiar as the show sounds, its genesis came about as unexpectedly. It was the fall of 1990, and Warrender was walking his dog in Seattle. "My dog started playing with another dog, and that dog happened to belong to Speight Jenkins, the general director of the Seattle Opera," Warrender says, adding, "I didn't know who he was. I went on this rampage about the Seattle Opera."

Warrender also mentioned he had a show running in the area. Jenkins, apparently not offended by the rampage, saw the show and shortly thereafter asked Warrender to write a companion piece for the Seattle Opera's production of the "Ring."

While Warrender had often written both music and lyrics, he called on Luigs, with whom he'd worked on several revues.

At first, Luigs says, he was hesitant. "Neither of us knew anything about the 'Ring,' other than that it loomed as a great chunk of Western culture that we had avoided our whole lives." Not only that, Luigs says, "I'm not an opera person by training or by inclination."

However, he says, "Scott seized the commission as an opportunity to create a new, small musical."

"Small" might sound antithetical to Wagner, but it was a stipulation of the commission, which limited the cast to five and the length to 90 minutes. Setting the show in Texas was Warrender's idea -- even though Luigs grew up there.

"I'd always heard that so many opera fans liked country music too," explains Warrender, who, during a recent conversation with him, Ashley and Luigs, happens to be the only one wearing cowboy boots. "I also felt that it gave it a point of view musically. It was country music; it wasn't just generic musical theater music. And it also seemed very accessible to everyone . . . And, if you have country music it seemed suitable that the story might go someplace like, well, I don't know, Texas."

Luigs says he found the Texas setting particularly appropriate to the source material because of "the grandeur of the landscape and the size and scale of the people."

Both concluded their initial unfamiliarity with Wagner and the "Ring" cycle was to their advantage. It has helped them make the show understandable to a broad audience.

"There's bonuses if you know the whole 'Ring' story inside out," says Ashley. "But we're aiming for . . . the 'Ring'-ignorant."

Adds Warrender: "[Luigs] made a great comparison at some point, saying that . . . 'Das Barbecu' was to the 'Ring' as 'West Side Story' is to 'Romeo and Juliet' -- that if you know the story of 'Romeo and Juliet,' there's something a little bit extra about it."

The three men vehemently oppose having the show described as a spoof, parody or send-up. "That implies you have to know the source material," Warrender explains.

As to the show's tone, he admits with a laugh, "Originally, my mind was all super-campy. 'We'll just set it in a bowling alley -- Valhalla Lanes! It'll be really simple! Go for it, Jim!' How hard could it be? . . . And I had said that the giants were, like, doing a remodel on the bar or something. You know, just really trashy. And months later, what came out was just quite lovely and much more than I had even ever dreamed of."

Luigs says he wanted to "make the play my own. I just went straight back to the libretti, and I would read them. And then I swooped down on family, . . . and so I just wrote it about two warring, extended clans -- basically, Wotan and his clan, and Alberich and his. I figured if we were going to make it accessible, everybody came or at least wanted to come from a family."

Ashley says most of the rewrites have focused on increasing accessibility. They've included four new songs since Seattle, and "clarification work on who the characters are and what they need," he says.

A director with numerous off-Broadway credits, including Paul Rudnick's "Jeffrey" and the Public Theater's production of "Fires in the Mirror," the one-woman show by Baltimore native Anna Deavere Smith, Ashley admires Luigs and Warrender's openness new ideas.

"As a writing team three years into a project, they're amazingly willing to look with fresh eyes at the material," says the 29-year-old director.

Warrender and Luigs also share an irrepressible sense of humor, which bubbles to the surface when they explain how they arrived at the show's title.

"We had to come up with titles one day in about 15 minutes," Luigs begins. "We were brainstorming -- 'Valhallelujah'. . ."

"And 'Paint Your Wagner,' " Warrender chimes in.

"The obvious ones -- 'My Friend Fricka,' " Luigs recalls.

"Four of us were scrunched in the front of this pick-up," Warrender continues, "and we're, like, stream-of-consciousness, just saying things. OK. What's Texas? We have a barbecue. That's a good one -- 'Das Barbecu'!"

Despite this example of comedic camaraderie, Warrender and Luigs work separately when collaborating on the show. First, says Luigs, he writes the book and lyrics. "We have long discussions about the general feel and the setting and what we're going to do in general -- broad, bold strokes," he says. "I figure out where the songs are going to go, what the lyrics are going to be, and then I give them to Scott."

"It's very difficult to write really great lyrics that are smart to pre-existing music," Warrender says.

"I always have a dummy melody in my head," adds Luigs. "And it's amazing to me that it's never anything like what Scott comes up with."

Neither Warrender nor Luigs has formal theater training. Luigs, a year-old native of Venezuela who was raised in Texas and Connecticut, graduated from Duke University with a degree in English.

"I learned it all by being an audience member and wanting very badly to participate," he says, adding that one day he simply announced himself to be a playwright, lyricist and book writer for musicals, "never having done any of those things."

Ten years ago, he won the 10-minute play contest at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where he was an intern, and the theater subsequently produced several of his scripts and also commissioned "Rock 'n' Roles from William Shakespeare," which interwove Shakespearean scenes with popular music.

Warrender, 36, was born in Cheverly, in Maryland, but has spent most of his life in Seattle. He took up the piano at age 12. "I composed as soon as I could for anybody who'd sing my stuff," he says.

He has a bachelor's degree in music from Western Washington University, but says he resisted theater for a long time "because I had a lot of friends who were in theater and were all poor."

Then, in 1985, he attended a musical revue in Seattle by a local writer who was getting a lot of attention. "I thought, 'I could do better than that.' " He spent the next month writing "The Texas Chainsaw Manicurist," which debuted at a Seattle restaurant, moved to the Seattle Repertory Theatre and has subsequently been produced in 16 other cities. Since then, Warrender has worked on 17 other shows.

"Das Barbecu" came to Center Stage's attention last January, when a script and tape arrived in the mail. "It was just a really distinctive sound and very funny and very smart," says resident dramaturg James Magruder.

The musical is being staged in the upstairs Head Theater, arranged in a cabaret configuration similar to that used for last season's "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill."

"They said we could kill the cabaret setting if we wanted," says Ashley. "But it felt like it worked. The first scene of this play . . . is five actors out on stage singing 'Ring of Gold in Texas.' It's very informal and the informality of the cabaret setting felt like the sort of frame of the piece."

At Center Stage, the audience will include the group of New York producers who have optioned the show. The option came about after Center Stage announced plans to produce it.

"We've carefully not been treating this production like an out-of-town tryout," says Ashley, at the same time admitting: "We've all been leaving the time, doing the work, in hopes that New York will wind up happening."

L "It's a consummation devoutly to be wished," says Warrender.

'DAS BARBECU'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees most Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. and Jan. 26 at 1 p.m. Through Feb. 20. (Audio-described performance Feb. 13 at 2 p.m.; sign-interpreted performance Jan. 15 at at 2 p.m.)

Tickets: $23-$28

Call: (410) 332-0033; TDD: (410) 332-4240

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To hear excerpts from "Das Barbecu," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 -- (410) 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County, (410) 836-5028 in Harford County, (410) 848-0338 in Carroll County -- and punch in 6113 after you hear the greeting.

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