Musical Theatre Guild concluded its 2009-10 season with a one-night-only concert staged reading of Das Barbecü, a show you’ve probably never heard of before, but one that proved a delightful discovery.

Das Barbecü was selected as part of Ring Festival 2010, the ongoing festival which showcases a wide variety of events all related to the first-ever presentation in L.A. of Richard Wagner’s four-opera drama Der Ring des Nibelungen. Das Barbecü takes the plot of the cycle’s final chapter, Götterdämmerung, condenses its five-plus hour running time down to about two, places it smack dab in the middle of the Lone Star State, peoples it with five actors playing more than two dozen roles, and sets it to original country pop music and lyrics by Scott Warrender and Jim Luigs.

The resulting musical comedy, which world premiered in Seattle in 1991 and made its off-Broadway debut three years later, has way too much plot for any audience unfamiliar with Götterdämmerung’s many twists and turns, but no matter. Warrender and Luigs’ tuneful, catchy songs run the gamut of every country pop subgenre and Luigs’ book is clever enough to entertain theatergoers who have no idea what in tarnation is going on. Perhaps most importantly, Das Barbecü offers its five performers ample opportunities to strut their musical comedy stuff.

The Musical Theatre Guild cast (Stuart Ambrose, Melissa Fahn, Gordon Goodman, Pamela Hamill, and Shauna Markey) had some of the toughest assignments ever for an MTG ensemble. Limited by Actors Equity rules to a grand total of twenty-five hours of rehearsal time, these triple-threat fast studies had to play between four and eight characters, learn about a dozen songs each, as well as tons of blocking, with several dance numbers thrown in to boot. It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen an MTG show before that all five succeeded at these challenges with flying colors.

Basically, Das Barbecü revolves around a magical gold ring which an evil dwarf stole from a trio of river maidens, a theft which leads to misfortune after misfortune before finally being returned to the maidens from whence it came. Got that?

Unfortunately, sound problems at the Alex prevented anyone in attendance from hearing virtually any of the lyrics of the show’s clever hoedown of an opening number, “A Ring Of Gold In Texas,” which describes the show’s plot in considerable detail until the Narrator (Hamill) steps in to offer a brief summary. (The only reason I know this is that I had listened to the show’s Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording a few times before Monday’s performance.)

These sound volume and mixing problems were eventually resolved, to this reviewer’s satisfaction at least. More importantly, the evening’s physical comedy, frequent costume changes, clever visual props, and overall smashing performances under the sterling direction of Ken Sawyer made for a highly entertaining couple of hours.

Among the evening’s highlights were:

•“Hogtie Your Man,” wedding advice by Brünnhilde’s sisters The Norn Triplets (Fahn, Markey, and Ambrose, the latter getting laughs simply from the long blond wig worn atop his 6’6” frame), complete with lasso-spinning choreography.

•“Makin’ Guacamole,” which had Needa Troutt (Hamill), Milam Lamar (Ambrose), and Gertrune (Fahn) yodelling the virtues of you can guess what.

•“Rodeo Romeo,” a country rock gem sung by that rodeo Romeo himself, Siegfried (Ambrose).

•“Public Enemy Number .1,” which the Texas Rangers (Fahn, Markey, and Goodman) dedicated to Alberich, the titular dwarf “so infinitesimal that they had to use a decimal.” (Imagine, if you can, a 6’6” dwarf. That was Ambrose in the role.)

•“A Little House For Me,” with Freia (Fahn played her, though I have no idea who Freia was) warbling about the tiny cottage built for her by a pair of giant construction workers (Ambrose and Goodman).

•“If Not For You,” which had Brünnhilde’s father Wotan (Goodman) and dwarf Alberich (Ambrose) twanging away a tribute to each other. (Alberich: If not for you, who knows, I might be tall.)

•“Slide A Little Closer,” with Siegfried and Brünnhilde doing a mean Texas two-step to Leslie Stevens’ sprightly choreography

•“Barbecue For Two,” which featured rivals Gertrune and Brünnhilde drowning their left-at-the-altar sorrow by downing an entire barbecueful of grub.

•“After The Gold Is Gone,” sung by the Rivermaidens (Fahn, Hamill, and Markey) who’d taken refuge in showbiz as a country music girl group.

The show’s four ballads (Markey’s “County Fair,” Goodman’s “River Of Fire,” Ambrose and Hamill’s “Wanderin’ Man,” and Markey, Hamill, and Goodman’s “Turn The Tide”) proved among the evening’s most powerfully performed numbers.

The quintet of MTG stars simply could not have been better, or better prepared despite only twenty-five hours of rehearsal—Ambrose delightfully spoofing his leading man persona; Fahn, Hamill, and Markey giving comedic gems of performances; and Goodman adding gravitas with his stage presence. All five were in superb voice.

Having the six-piece Das Barbecü in the pit rather than on stage (the first time I can recall this in an MTG show) gave the evening more of a “fully-staged” feeling, though may have contributed to the sound mixing problems. Kudos to musical director Ed Martel on piano and bass, and to the rest of the band—Steve Welch, Gordon Peeke, Craig Stull, and Jean Sudbury. Das Barbecü’s production coordinator was Christopher Callen assisted by Jennifer Shelton, production stage manager Art Brickman assisted by Anne Mureau and Allie Roy, the latter duo moving props and costume pieces, several of which were provided by Paula Higgens.

More than any other recent MTG concert staged reading, Das Barbecü seems made for a 99-seat plan staging. Perhaps in a closer-up setting, the shows many plot twists would be easier to follow, and the show’s lyrics easier to catch.

Still, even despite not being able to follow Das Barbecü nearly as well as I would have liked to, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

MTG’s next season shapes up to be one of its best ever, with 70 Girls 70, Hello Again, One Touch Of Venus, Little Me, and Bat Boy: The Musical making for a great mix of rarely staged “chestnuts” and more edgy, contemporary fare. I for one can’t wait!

–Steven Stanley
June 14, 2010

The Alex Theatre, Glendale


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