The Broadway Palm Dinner Theater is featuring a tribute to Johnny Cash. "Ring of Fire," a juke-box musical conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. is a stirring, easygoing, songbook tribute to Johnny Cash - superstar, farm boy, Bible researcher, novelist and drug addict. This two-hour-and-20-minute show captures the bigger-than-life American folk tale, Johnny Cash, "the man in black" through his music.
At the top of the show, artfully and powerfully directed and choreographed by Ann Nieman, we are introduced to eight performers with Johnny's trademark phrase, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." The four men - Adam Clough, Todd Meredith, Mike Long, Scott Moreau - and four women - Kelly Cusimano, Diana Fox, Margie Mills, Marija Reiff - all of portray Johnny Cash and, in so doing, underscore that his story is Everyman's (and Everywoman's) story.
Director Nieman has wisely insisted that no one attempt to imitate this country icon's vocal style or mannerisms, although Moreau (having portrayed the Cash role before) and Fox (who hails from Houston, Texas) bring a bit more of a regional feel and sound, imbuing their performances with that very particular kind of country warmth.
This show is polished without losing its heart as it tells this American story in song - which it does simply without ever becoming hard-edged or theatrically glitzy. In fact, the simplest moments are its strongest. After the story of how Cash's brother died in a terrible accident, we hear a gorgeous a cappella version of "In the Sweet By and By" followed by a joyful "Will the Circle be Unbroken?"
Cash's music and lyrics tells the tale of growing up dirt poor, wrestling with family tragedy, striking out on his own, emerging as a songwriter, finding June Carter, his wife and the love of his life, and becoming a man who could be counted on to take the little guy's side.
Cash's early songs call forth the rhythms of rural life - simply delightful songs. Then comes "Five Foot High and Rising" clearly evoking the frightful tensions of a flood, which then miraculously leaves a rich deposit of top soil on the family's cotton fields. This incident is followed by a surprisingly direct celebration of marital bliss, "When I've Got it On My Mind." Of course, all the great songs (over two dozen of them) are also spotlighted, from "Walk the Line" and "A Boy Named Sue" to "Sunday Morning Coming Down." Written by Cash's buddy Kris Kristofferson, "Sunday Morning" is a song about addiction, describing one of the low moments of Cash's life.
There is a Grand Ole Opry sequence which is gleefully over the top, especially when Marija Rieff performs her Minnie Pearl take-off with "Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart." That segues into the guys, Tom Weaver on guitar and Loren Strickland on keyboard, accompanying Adam Clough in the hilarious "Dirty Old Egg-Suckin' Dog."
Another high point in the show is the raw power of Cash's legendary prison recordings. In this hard-hitting segment the ensemble plays all manner of found objects - railroad spikes, buckets, tin plates, even chairs - under Strickland's fine musical direction and the strong staging and choreography by Nieman.
Before acknowledging the cast, kudos belong to the five fine musicians who not only play brilliantly but add much to their characterizations as the performers who surrounded Cash in his performances. First, Jason Labrador on fiddle rocked the place with his incredible virtuosity and speed; John F. McCarty and Tom Weaver on guitar, Chris Rose on bass, Strickland on Piano (and washboard!) - their musical contributions added much to making this celebration of Johnny Cash, the man and his music, a night to remember.
The Company of eight was outstanding in all the ensemble numbers - "Daddy Sang Bass," "Going to Memphis," the title song, "Ring of Fire," "Jackson," "I Walk the Line," and the finale "I've Been Everywhere." Some of the outstanding singles and duos were "If I Were a Carpenter" sung by Todd Meredith and Fox, Moreau's "Folsom Prison," Mike Long's "Man in Black," "A Boy Named Sue" - Todd Meredith, Reiff's "Tear Stained Letter," "All Over Again" featuring Margie Mills, and Moreau and Fox's
"Cry, Cry, Cry."
But my vote for the most affecting ensemble piece of the evening would easily go to "Angel Band" weaving its way into "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" for pulling out all the stops with heart tugging emotion.
The grand finale, "I've Been Everywhere," brought the audience rising as one to cheer this amazing cast with a rousing, well deserved, standing ovation.
All in all, "Ring of Fire" succeeds on every level, bringing directly to the audience the singing legend known as the Man in Black, Johnny Cash. Even though the show runs till June 5th, this is one terrific show and may sell out fast. I would strongly suggest that you phone the box office at 278-4422 as soon as possible! When you phone remind 'em Marsha sent you.