Wednesday, April 5, 2017

RING OF FIRE at ATC is a down home homage that warms as much as it burns

the cast of Ring of Fire
photo by Tim Fuller
by Jennifer Haaland

If it's a Johnny Cash extravaganza, it's safe to bank on some smokin' audience appeal. Arizona Theatre Company's Ring of Fire at Herberger Theater in that regard did not disappoint.

The 2006 Broadway 'musical' created by Richard Maltby is not exactly a revue or jukebox format, and it definitely does not offer a plot or even a biographical chronology. What it does offer is down home homage to a personality that shaped a unique, unequaled brand of country music.

The show works as a nostalgic tribute to the life and music of the iconic Man in Black. To that end, the breadth of the musical selections was like the kind of treat marshmallows roasted on a woodsy campfire are. Numbers like "I Walk the Line" and "Jackson" stirred up or sparked more sweet, intangible sentiment  than they did concrete images of Cash.

Some narration and a few rarely seen Cash family photos projected onto a large screen that was reminiscent of drive-in movie theaters or bygone billboards also adding graham crackers and melty chocolate to marshmallows?...the tribute aspect.

Never dousing the flames, the musical worked, too, as a memory wellspring. It recalled playful tunes and surly spirits that Cash and wife June Carter branded.  Trenna Barnes' most adorable moment, for example, occurred during her "Flushed from the Bathroom of your Heart" rendition. That Michael Monroe Goodman had studied Cash's unique guitar postures added fuel to the kindling in his fun version of "Boy Named Sue."

Overall, "Ring of Fire" summoned, too, the somber. For instance, Brian Mathes as an older Johnny Cash delivered his strongest performance of the evening in the second act during "Man in Black."  Likewise, his duet with Allison Briner-Dardenne, "Far Side Banks of Jordan," coaxed a few tears.

More than anything, a feast of music and consummate musicianship fed the fire. So it was fitting that the musicians were often centerstage rather than in back corners or in a pit. The second act opened with an outstanding upright bass solo from John W Marshall. Then, with impressive escalating speed, all nine cast members formed a semi circle of matched acoustic guitars while they bounced the lyrics to 'I've Been Everywhere' back-and-forth between one another.

Yet, neither of those stunnings numbers outshone the “Fulsom Prison Blues”. Traditional percussion was trumped by buckets, chains, pipes and even the sounds of a rifle cocking to chilling effect.

Granted there was no story to hang your cowboy hat on at Arizona Theatre Company’s Ring of Fire. Twinges of sadness were inescapable. As much appreciation as the talented cast called up, they made missing the real Johnny Cash's singular vocal style and unforgettable care-worn compassion unavoidable.  The show was a wonderful, well-presented tribute that warms as much as it burns.

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