Johnny Cash— the name conjures up the iconic look, sound and feel of the man and his music which has become part of the American musical lexicon. Many of us have heard the voice, and recognize the “man in black,” even in silhouette. Ring of Fire brings all of that and more into focus through brief vignettes about his life and music performed by the most talented collection of musicians this side of Nashville.
Ben Hope channels Cash with his rugged swagger, nonchalant air, exquisite guitar picking, and of course, that husky, musky voice. He delivers not an imitation, but a tribute to the country music legend; he keeps Cash clearly in his sight lines while being true to his own style. It’s a remarkable performance. Paired with his wife, Katie Barton as June Carter-Cash, the two are unstoppable. Barton has a clear, sparkling voice and easily ranges from the young June of the legendary Carter family, then transitions to a woman in love with unwavering devotion to the troubled Cash. They meet through music and look at each other adoringly, appreciating their artistry and shared musicianship while lighting up the stage with talent and electricity.
The others in the ensemble are just as amazing—Lori Eure, Silas Moores and Spiff Wiegand all play interchangeable roles while singing and jamming on an assortment of instruments, including Eure on trumpet. A sweet duet with Wiegand, “While I’ve Got it On My Mind,” is one outstanding highlight in a show packed full of them.
The story, like the music, is rooted in the south, where the Cash family lived meagerly in a flood-prone area in Arkansas (inspiring their early hit, “Five Feet and Rising,” nicely rendered in the show.) A performer in a local band, Cash wrote a song to fill a space, and once he started writing about his life experiences, it was like the floodgates opened and he ended up writing hundreds of songs.
The performers portray various characters to maintain a decent storyline, but the main focus is always the music. The skimpy script scampers playfully over aspects of Johnny and June’s relationship, giving the impression that they patiently waited for each other for years while performing at the Opry. In fact, they were both married with families, in Johnny’s case tumultuously and with four children, a fact that the minimalist script doesn’t touch. But that’s fine- we’re here for the music not the gory life details that can be filled in with a couple of Internet clicks; their early lives are not ancient history (yet).
This show was adapted from the Broadway production by the creator Matby, Jr. and Jason Edwards, and it has the rugged polish of a piece that has seen the road. Once again, Infinity Theatre cast a wide net to secure performers from all around the country— all have done time on Broadway. Ben Hope played the lead in Once, Katie Barton recently toured with Million Dollar Quartet, Spiff Wiegand plays over twenty instruments and recently performed his original music at Carnegie Hall. It’s that kind of stellar ensemble gathered to pay tribute to the makings of Johnny Cash, or J.R. or John. And it’s enlightening to get a sense of the man in the black attire (plus we find out Why!) and his devotion to playing for prisoners, a.k.a. his “Folsom Prison Blues.”
RING OF FIRE: The Music of Johnny Cash
June 6 – 28
CTA Theatre Complex
1661 Bay Head Road
Annapolis , MD
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $20 – $36
Tickets or call 877 501 8499
Ring of Fire brings Cash’s songs to new audiences while satisfying country music purists by delivering the magic of the sound. Known for his pared down no-nonsense style, Cash’s lyrical themes are steeped in life’s hard-knock lessons and redemption while his sound covers a full range of music– the raw edges of blues, remnants of folk, gospel, and even bits of pop are all in there and he’s influenced them all. His signature songs get star treatment in Ring of Fire and you won’t get a more effective interpretation anywhere of “I Walk the Line.”
The multi-layered set by scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III consists of earth-toned metallic cutout backdrop inlaid with written words representing Cash’s massive assemblage of lyrics. The finale “I’ve Been Everywhere” is an example, with all of the cast members taking turns spouting out the myriad cities he’s toured in rapid fire tongue-tangling gusto. It’s a hoot.
Lighting designer Jimmy Lawlor takes advantage of the open cutout designs with various shades of colors throughout, including blazing bright at the end of the first act for the incomparable “Ring of Fire,” then ending with glorious heavenly rays for the finale when June has passed on, followed by Johnny several months later.
It’s enough to make you want to strap on your western gear and saddle on over to Annapolis. Don’t be surprised if you have a hankering for cowboy boots, or even a hat after being immersed in this tribute to the music of Johnny Cash in yet another first class production offered by Infinity Theatre.
But hurry – the show is selling out fast.
Ring of Fire – the Music of Johnny Cash by Richard Maltby, Jr, and William Meade . Stage and Music Direction by Amy Jones . Produced by Infinity Theatre . Reviewed by Debbie Jackson.