Back in the early 1990s, Washington’s Seattle Opera — to accompany its presentation of Wagner’s extensive “Ring Cycle” (“Der Ring des Nibelungen”) — commissioned a lighter take on the tale.
With book and lyrics by Jim Luigs and music by Scott Warrender, the musical “Das Barbecü” primarily focuses on the fourth opera in the cycle. It puts five actors through their paces as they portray 30 different characters in what the publisher calls “a witty Texas fable.” The music, while chiefly in the country and western genre, includes some jazz, Broadway, Texas swing, and even a touch of soul.
Little Theatre of Winston-Salem will bring the fast-moving, comic presentation to Hanesbrands Theatre downtown starting Friday night.
The cast of “Das Barbecü” includes Linda Shillito (Actor 1), Peggie Dull (Actor 2), Sarah Jenkins (Actor 3), Trevor Ketterling (Actor 4) and Dave Wils (Actor 5). Chloe Adam is the understudy.
Lane Fields, Little Theatre executive director, is the director and choreographer for “Das Barbecü,” and he brings a personal history to the project as well.
“Das Barbecü” moved on from Seattle to further seasoning in Connecticut and Baltimore before trying out New York City in 1994, with limited success.
In 1997, Oklahoma’s Pollard Theatre became one of the first regional theaters to stage the musical. Fields was a performer in that production and has wanted to re-visit it ever since.
“It’s a little-done musical, but it’s really funny,” he said. “I also really like the music. It has 13-14 very distinct songs and, unlike some other shows, you’re likely to be humming some of them after the show.”
Fields said that, while the story line is “inspired” by the massive opera, “it’s very much its own story.” Much as “Rent” is inspired by “La Bohème,” or “West Side Story” by “Romeo and Juliet,” “Das Barbecü” borrows characters and situations to adjust the story to different storytelling.
“I’ve always felt this was modeled after ‘Greater Tuna,’ which, along with ‘Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ or ‘Always, Patsy Cline,’ are about the only other true country-and-western stage works,” Fields said.
Among the memorable “Das Barbecü” tunes are several of Fields’ favorites.
“’County Fair’ is one of my favorite songs in all of musical theater,” he said. “And ‘Ring of Gold in Texas,’ which is revisited more than once, is super catchy.”
One of the leading challenges for the actors will be costume changes while also preparing to play a different character.
“It will be interesting to know how we’re getting in and out of them quickly,” said Linda Shillito, who plays eight different characters in the show, as does Peggie Dull.
Sarah Jenkins, who “only” plays four characters, feels she has the lightest load. “I think Dave (Wils) has it the worst, because he’s changing costumes so quickly, along with gender switches” that he can’t short-cut by wearing one item over another.
Wils and Ketterling each have five characters to create.
It’s somewhat rare in community theater productions, but in this situation, each of the actors will benefit from an off-stage dresser dedicated to their needs.
While costumes will aid the process, building distinctive and different personas for each character is another important task during the rehearsal process.
“We’re working to find inspirations for each of them,” Shillito said. “I have found that it’s not hard at all for me to come up with different voices, but finding the right voice for the character is difficult. Then you have to think about how you sing this song, and translate to how you speak for that character.”
Dull agrees that working on the voice is vital.
“For me,” she said, “it almost always starts with finding the voice of the character. Finding it for each individual character directs the physicality of how that character gets played.”
The process began for her with highlighting the various lines in the script and starting to contemplate how a character would say those words. Even a character with only one line requires gaining the right sense about how she intends that line to sound.
“At the end of the day, this musical is a farce,” Fields concluded. “It’s West Texas meets Branson meets Valhalla. It’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ meets Looney Tunes.”