Friday, May 9, 2014

Ring of Fire Burns Bright

By Andrew Juhl
Photo By Lily-Allen Duenas

The cast of Ring of Fire
Amana - Thanks to the fact that my USB drive ate my original review before I was able to submit it, this is the second time I’ve had to write this. That’s oddly fitting, actually, as it made me reconsider a musical that reconsiders the life and songs of Johnny Cash.

I’ve been a fan of Cash for decades. I’m also a fan of trivia, and Cash’s life and songs are a gold mine of fun facts, tidbits, and anecdotes that have served me well during pub quizzes more than a handful of times. There exists an inarguable poetry in Cash’s austere lyrics. The simple sophistication and bluntness of Cash’s lyrics belie their elegant profundity; their simplicity should lead to their dismissal, but their meaning stays with you long after the tunes' reverberations have faded.

Though much of the story of Cash’s life is more honestly and powerfully covered in Ring of Fire’s cinematic successor, Walk the Line, the performances in the movie are removed from the audience by a much greater degree. Seeing and hearing the songs of Cash performed live on stage by a dais of Johnnybees is a wholly different and enjoyable experience. And whereas the movie spends time on Cash’s highs, it almost perversely delights in lows; Ring of Fire, on the other hand, is far more a celebration of the man and his accomplishments, favoring the moments where he overcame rather than the moments where he came undone.

One of the greatest challenges Old Creamery faces when putting on these non-book musicals is that they need to feel like more than a karaoke night. The audience needs to leave the venue feeling like they paid for a real show, not just a cover band. The loose narrative that strings together Ring of Fire’s songs helps ease the buyer’s remorse somewhat, but the cast of this production is ultimately the aspect that turns thoughts such as I could have just gone to a movie tonight into I’m glad I didn’t just go to a movie tonight.

In some productions of Ring of Fire, the role of “Johnny Cash” is portrayed by 2 or 3 actors portraying Cash along different portions of his career. One notable drawback of that approach is that it deliberately cleaves one character into several distinct performances, often diluting both the character AND those performances. The Old Creamery’s production pulls four actors and two actresses into the fold, all at one point or another portraying some aspect of Mr. Cash. This, somewhat unexpectedly, does not exacerbate the problem of dilution, but rather fuses all six actors into a single role in a surprisingly effective manner. That’s not to say there aren’t a few cracks in the fa├žade, but there are definitely several moments when the vocal or instrumental talents of one performer complement the role of Cash in a way the talents of another performer would have underserved it, and because of this, the whole overall production is strengthened by this tag-team approach to Cash’s portrayal.

Sadly, the character of June Carter Cash is sorely underwritten. And, due to the fact that the actress portraying June (Jessica Bradish) also inhabits the identity and lyrics of Johnny throughout the production, moments wherein she plays June to another actor’s Johnny lack any simulacrum of romantic or emotional chemistry.

That said, Ring of Fire is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a few hours. Bradish nails it when she goes solo and soulful during “Waiting on the Far-Side Banks of Jordan,” as well as during one unexpected and quite enjoyable cameo as a famous Grand Ole Opry personality that I won’t spoil here. For their part, actors Jon Brown, Eric Scott Anthony, and Scott Wakefield do fine impersonations of Mr. Cash, though only Wakefield believably inhabits the gravelly gravitas of Cash’s later-career classics. Chaz'men Williams-Ali is mostly relegated to percussion, but really shines during some of the more bluesy and spiritual ditties, and Kendra Jo Brook makes her fiddle sing throughout the show.

One thing that might disappoint audiences about this show is just how many songs in Cash’s expansive discography they won’t get to hear. But, then again, there are worse things to be said about a musical than “it leaves you wanting more.”

Ring of Fire runs through May 25 on Old Creamery's Main Stage. More information here.

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