Thursday, February 4, 2016

Review: RING OF FIRE at CenterStage Theatre

The Musical Story of Johnny Cash
Created by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Conceived by William Meade
Adapted from the Broadway Production by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Jason Edwards
Through February 14 2016
at CenterStage Theatre
3200 SW Dash Point Road
Federal Way, WA 98003

Funny thing, the jukebox show (and specifically, the songbook show): so many ways to go, and so many ways to get it wrong. 

Some creators choose to weave together a plot and nail songs to it. MAMMA MIA, XANADU, AMERICAN IDIOT, ROCK OF AGES, the forthcoming DISASTER... sometimes it works fine, sometimes less so. (I'm not taking sides on any of the shows I mentioned -- if you'd like to guess where I stand on each of them, have at it in the comments.)

Some opt for biography. Some artists' lives are inspiring or tragically interesting, and other, again, less so. JERSEY BOYS, THE BOY FROM OZ, BEAUTIFUL, MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, FELA!... There's always the risk that the music will pull you out of the story as much as drive it along.

When all else fails, stick to the music. After all, if you go ALL SHOOK UP!, you want to hear lots of Elvis tunes; BEATLEMANIA, an overdose of the Fab Four. (My own personal favorite of the genre is JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS, a wonderful production of which was co-presented by ACT and the 5th Avenue last season, with one of the leads of the current show wonderful in the cast.) For variety, add dance, as Twyla Tharp did for Billy Joel in MOVIN' OUT and Sinatra in COME FLY AWAY. But for the shortest path to satisfaction, let the music speak.

RING OF FIRE comes darn close to doing so. While it's billed as "the musical story of Johnny Cash," don't expect the warts-and-all biography of JERSEY BOYS. (If you really want a solid picture of that, of course, there's always the excellent film WALK THE LINE, or Robert Kilburn's book JOHNNY CASH: THE LIFE; for a deep backgrounder the Carter Family into which Cash married, read WILL YOU MISS ME WHEN I'M GONE?) The timeline that runs through the show pretty much serves to put the music in context, and if you know about Johnny and June it won't teach you anything new, and if you don't, it won't matter much to you either.

But that's not really a problem here. The show wisely lets the music speak. And it's performed wonderfully. 

Many of the songs in Act 1 are from the early days of Cash's life and his early and middle career, and set the backdrop of gospel ("Old Rugged Cross"), hillbilly (Hank Williams' "Straight A's in Love"), as well as rock 'n' roll and "traditional" country, plus a couple of his sillier pieces, "Flushed" and "Dirty Ol' Egg Sucking Dog." But we also get to see the beginning of the era when the respect for his remarkable talent opened up some of the richer rock and folk-rock of the 60s and later - Tim Hardin's lovely "If I Were a Carpenter" - as well as songs that are on almost anyone's Cash Top Ten - "Ring of Fire."

Act 2 is shorter but holds even more of those "name your favorite Johnny Cash song" songs, from the Folsom era and later, including "Folsom Prison Blues," "Man in Black," "I Walk the Line," and "Hey Porter." And the show wraps with the unforgettable "A Boy Named Sue." My favorite number in the show? I'll come back to that in a moment.

As for the performances... well, let's get one thing out of the way. If you're expecting to hear Johnny Cash's unmistakeable bass-baritone, well, let go of that. Instead, come to hear terrific singers and musicians doing great justice to the Johnny Cash songbook.

As (mainly) Johnny and June throughout the show, Jared Michael Brown and Cayman Ilika are terrific. Brown has been a fixture in the Seattle theater scene since the 2009 Contemporary Classics production of ZANNA, DON'T! He's appeared in ensemble, featured, and lead roles at major venues including the 5th Avenue (SOUND OF MUSIC, PIRATES OF PENZANCE), Village Theatre (IRON CURTAIN), and others. His performance is easy yet charismatic; his delivery is very much Cash's, but his excellent vocal performance is all his own. Ilika is a chameleon of a singer, with a voice that's crystalline and substantial all at once. She's been Mary Poppins and Marian the librarian, Patsy Cline and now June Carter Cash... and shines as all of them.

(I say "mainly" Johnny and June: the scaling down of the show from the 14 performers in the Broadway cast to the six in the current show occasionally leads to difficult transitions, such as when Cash and band are auditioning for Sun Records' Sam Phillips, and the role of Cash is handed off to one of the other musicians so that Brown can don sunglasses and play Phillips. A little clumsy dramatically... but not really important.)

The rest of the cast, and the band, include Tom Stewart, Jack Dearth, Zack Summers and Sean Tomerlin - with Summers on drums (and occasional comic outburst) and the other three on various guitars, including acoustic, electric, and bass. They, too, do great justice to the Cash songbook. 

As for my favorite song in the show: surprisingly, it's not one sung by the leads. One of the highest points of Cash's relationship with, and respect for and by, the next generation of performer and the mainstream of rock music was his performance of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down." While it was recorded by Ray Stevens first, Cash's performance really pushed the song into the limelight; Kristofferson thanks the song, and especially Cash's performance, for allowing him "to quit working for a living." Tom Stewart brought me to tears with his spare, tortured rendition. As did Johnny Cash. He would have been honored, I think.

If there's anything I regret about the show, it's that I was left wishing a few more songs had been in it - "One Piece at a Time," "Wayfaring Stranger," and from later on, John Prine's "The Twentieth Century is Almost Over" and Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle," to name a few. 

I really love it when my biggest problem with a show is that it left me wanting more...


  1. OK, this is too funny.

    When I posted this to Facebook, it was tagged as "Trending: Johnny Cash." When I looked at the reason, it was this: they've named a newly-discovered species of tarantula for him. Aphonopelma johnnycashi was so named because it's all black - "The Spider in Black" and discovered near Folsom Prison. (Someone wondered if it bit a man in Reno just to watch him die...)

  2. Thanks so much for the kinds words! Glad you liked the show.