“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
These were the first words heard when the lights came up on Dark Horse Company Theatre production of Ring of Fire, and suddenly I felt at ease. I’ve always loved the fact that even after selling millions of records, Johnny Cash still introduced himself each time he performed, just in case someone didn’t recognize the Man in Black.
I didn’t know what to expect from this production. I knew it had Johnny Cash music, and . . . . that’s about all I knew. I had never been to the Egyptian Theatre before, but the space is lovely, parking was easy-peasy, staff was friendly, and the plethora of local sponsors made me feel like I had joined a very cool club.
I still don’t know what to call the show; it isn’t a play, or a revue. There is no “Johnny Cash” character, and it’s not Mama Mia. It is, for lack of a better term, a musical biography. Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash was conceived by William Meade and created in 2006 by Richard Maltby, Jr. who also brought us Ain’t Misbehavin’, Fosse, and Miss Saigon.
This production uses a cast of ten: four men and three women, and three in the band. Though never introduced as such, I couldn’t help but recognize the Million Dollar Quartet on stage, specifically Austin Archer (in the skinniest pants I’ve ever seen) and his remarkable incarnation of Jerry Lee Lewis, and Daniel Simons’ undeniable resemblance to Elvis Presley. On the other end, the women easily brought to mind the Carter Sisters. All these artist worked with Cash and were part of his world, so it made sense for them to be there. We also saw (again, without specific introduction) Cash’s mother, brother, father, wife, and glimpses of Cash himself.
The band – Adam Overacker on bass, Mason Aeschbacher on drums, and Brandon Bushman on fiddle – were the perfect accompaniment. As a whole, they blended seamlessly with the staging, yet each instrument stood out in turn. And Brandon’s fiddle in Hey Porter was delightful. It is, in fact, easy to praise each member of the cast. There were no weak links. Every voice and personality was different and unique, yet harmonized beautifully. It didn’t take long to realize that any time Ginger Bess stepped forward, you would be treated to some flawless vocals. Jenessa Bowen, though tiny in stature, filled the whole stage with her personality and huge voice. Austin Archer was equally mesmerizing. Ricky Parkinson brought the rich, deep bass that is mandatory with Cash’s music. Jyllian Petrie gave us the clear, “June Carter Cash” tones. Daniel Simons and Christopher Glade were the anchors who gave us a consistent Johnny Cash feel with guitars and vocals.
It would be impossible to include all of Cash’s music, but the 30+ songs that were chosen are some of the best. They have been organized to lead us through the different chapters of Cash’s life – his childhood and family, his drug use and dark side, his loves and losses, his humor – and, combined with brief commentary, move from one to the next rather flawlessly. The set was simple, a few steps flanked with instruments and backed with projected photo’s. The lighting did everything it was supposed to. There isn’t a costumer listed and the cast was dressed casually in modern clothing. I can’t help but wonder if they will be wearing something different each night, or if they chose specific jeans and t-shirts. The clothing wasn’t distracting, but it didn’t add anything special to the production.
William Richardson’s direction was well-paced and easily moved the audience from laughter to tears. Ginger Bess’ music direction created gentle nuances that were noticed and appreciated by several guests sitting near me.
Listing the outstanding numbers is hard but if I had to pick a few, I would include Waiting On The Far Side Banks Of Jordan, Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart, Hey Porter, Going To Memphis, Why Me, Lord?, and A Boy Named Sue. And Ring Of Fire, and Jackson. Straight A’s In Love and Egg Suckin’ Dog were pretty great, along with Cocaine Blues. Tennessee Flat-Top Box was charming. Oy. So many to enjoy, though my favorite verse of Get Rhythm was not covered. Drat.
We bid farewell after a wonderful, full company rendition of I’ve Been Everywhere. Bottom line, this is a great show. It’s different, entertaining, and a great date destination. Go see it.
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash performs at the Egyptian Theatre. Remaining performances are March 22, 23, 24 & 25. http://www.egyptiantheatrecompany.org/ to buy tickets.