Das Barbecü – Beat a Dead Norse
A REVIEW BY ACHILLES FEELS
Das Barbecü (yes that last letter is a “u” with a umlaut over it, God knows how it should be pronounced, I sure as hell don’t), now playing at Spotlighters, is a rare thing: a musical I never knew existed. Rare and, as I entered The Basement, kind of exciting, as a matter of fact. The book and lyrics are by Jim Luigs and the music by Scott Warrender, Spot’s production is directed by Greg Bell with musical direction by the incomparable Michael Tan.
Barbecü is a musical version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle if it were botched by a cowboy pit-master moonlighting as a plastic surgeon. The Ring Cycle (or Der Ring des Nibelungen, WWV 86, if you want to get technical) is an insane amount of story, broken up into four four-to-five-hour operas that are very rarely all done at once. A single four-hour opera would be read, today, as excruciating; it’s almost impossible for contemporary audiences to engage for that long. Last time I was forced to sit for four fucking hours I was at the DMV, but luckily, this show isn’t anywhere near that length. The book is a piece of Texan cotton-candy fluff, campy, chock-full of silly, twangy shtick as five actors (Andrea Bush, Jim Gross, Allison Comotto, Clare Kneebone and Rob Wall) play more than thirty characters in this convoluted Lord of the Rings-meets-Jerry Springer “story”. It’s aimed as a “spoof” on Wagner’s masterpiece, intentionally making the most out of twisting enormous portions of the original plot.
I have to say that I struggled with the point of all this (are enough people familiar with the original Ring Cycle to for the parody to truly land or does it get tedious?), and there was a definite moment when I started to see why I hadn’t heard of this show before. I like silly, I like it a lot, but I think Das Barbecü crosses further into the “eye-roll” category than I strictly enjoy. I mean, I could see that it was meant to be side-splitting, but I had a really hard time getting there. Part of the problem is with energy. To make this show work, you need a crazy amount of energy. I mean super high-energy, party-time-on-coke energy, that the direction (Greg Bell) and choreography (Jillian Bauersfeld and Greg Bell) don’t deliver consistently enough. There are glimpses, of course; I enjoyed the “After The Gold Is Gone” sequence, it’s quite funny, and has some interesting movement choices. I also liked the rivermaidens (mythical creatures from the opera who, booted from the water, find themselves styled more Esther Williams than Norse) and the clever use of a cloth partition. I only wish that the transition into this scene was quicker and smoother. Some watery sound effects to solidify the mood would also be nice.
Another big challenge was the actors’ overall ability to seamlessly slip from one character to another. Part of the frustration is with the script itself; while it can, at times, be fun to watch a quick change, the concept gets too old too fast for this show to handle. Despite the best efforts of the hard-working honeys up there, the characters inevitably start to blend into one big Looney Toon. Vocally, however, all five of them were heavenly (and nicely matched by the excellent pit, lead by Tan), but damn, Claire Kneebone and Allison Comotto are two ladies who could hold any difficult musical lead you could possibly dream up. Their voices are clear as bells, thoughtful, and have stunning range.
Alan Zemla’s set shows more of the samey sameness I always complain about with Spotlighters, with swaths of sandy-colored adobe surfaces, a brick paint treatment and the ever-present benches. Me and Zemla are, I guess, going to have to agree to disagree about paint, because Spotlighters can’t seem to tear themselves away from the glossy aisle at Home Depot. (RULL quick, I promise: Let me lay some Tech 101 on you to explain this pet peeve of mine, lest I start sounding like the paint-monster. Glossy paint, used the way it’s used here, is not ideal for a couple of reasons. One, if there is a paint treatment on the stage that someone has spent hours on, a texture or something like that, gloss kills it because it’s so reflective that you can’t see the details. Two, it creates a YOOGE amount of pupil-dilating glare, which interferes with the lighting design in a space as small as Spots. Three, that shiny paint on the floor emphasizes every scuff, scratch, nail head, chip, mark and imperfection, especially as the run goes on. Okay, okay, I’m off my *matte-painted* soapbox now.) Costumes by Andrew Malone, Darcy Elliott, and Clare Kneebone were okay, but could have pushed further. Lots of jeans, oversized shirts, poofy dresses, bad wigs, and a belt buckle or two does not a cast of thirty characters make.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Spotlighters works hard, no doubt, and I’ve certainly enjoyed shows there before. I wasn’t impressed by this material, this time, but “skip it” isn’t how I feel, not exactly. And that’s because the actors, particularly in regard to the vocal talent on display, really do save the day – almost. Perhaps a better summation, then, is this: go and support the stage. You’ll laugh at Das Barbecü, even if you have a sneaking suspicion that it didn’t really need to be made.
Email Achilles Feels at firstname.lastname@example.org
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