Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash

The second act sings, but the first act stinks

Upright Bass Player John W Marshall*
     During the intermission of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash at Playhouse in the Park, upright bass player John W. Marshall seemed to be improvising and then he was
in the middle of “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” and the other musicians joined in and the musical craft shook the audience.  Later, drummer Walter Hartman shone in the prison sequence with director Jason Edwards and the rest of the band.  The musicians are terrific with extensive backgrounds as session players.  Most of the second act worked because it was all about singing Johnny Cash’s songs and not being afraid of their darker aspects.  Some of the audience members weren’t so certain.

    The show started well with spotlighted introductions of the principal performers tied to moments from Cash’s life, but then the mediocre lighting washed over the rural hut set and the potential dissipated.  We were transported to something like a dreary episode of Hee Haw when I would wait desperately for the ten minutes when Buck Owens and Roy Clark would play something great before the cornpone humor would restart.  The first act recalled Cash’s childhood but without fully mining the depth of his songs and without the immediacy or poignancy of the same sequences in Walk the Line (2005).

Jason Edwards, Allison Briner, Trenna Barnes and Derek Keeling*
     The female principals did well when they were performing with musical instruments, but were caricatures when acting.  Mostly, they tried to seem Southern sweet and sort of sexy, but just came across as cutesy and unoriginal.  Neither Trenna Barnes nor Allison Briner made a single acting or singing choice that I couldn’t have anticipated.  Jason Edwards and Derek Keeling did better playing the older and younger Cash; their singing conveyed something of his voice and style in the second act.  Johnny Cash was the type of performer (such as the very different Barbra Streisand, Kate Smith, or Frank Sinatra) that could stand, do nothing but sing, and mesmerize an audience because of star quality.  These principal cast members are sloggers – pros that have been in Broadway replacement casts, performed in major regional theatres, and been backup singers, but they aren’t stars.  The show has been around for a decade and they’ve been with it on and off, resulting in a sense of fatigue and a tendency to play for the easy, entertaining effect, rather than for authentic emotion.

The Cast of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash

     That being said, this will probably be a hit for the Playhouse.  The theatre was packed, the audience was toe tapping and eating up the dumb jokes in the first act, and there was the requisite standing ovation.  We’d predicted this at the intermission because, as Neil observed, “they’re saying this is what they like,” rather than this was something moving or extraordinary.  Oh well, if it encourages some people to become subscribers or attend a couple of shows, good for them!
* Photos by Sandy Underwood

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