I recently had the opportunity to have date night with my 14-year-old daughter who is a musical theater fanatic.
We attended a performance of Ring of Fire – The Music of Johnny Cash at the Wells Theater, directed by Amy Jones. The words “Ring of Fire” immediately brought to mind the iconic look and sound of the Man in Black. My first thought was how would this compare to the film that depicted the life and times of Johnny Cash.
I expected more acting to be mixed in with the singing; instead I was surprised and pleased to see it presented as storytelling through the songs of Johnny Cash. There were lines, but they were few, and although they were few, those lines were expressive and succinct. Ultimately, the performance wasn’t so much a play or a musical as much as it was a trip down memory lane with excellent storytellers and musicians.
Walking into the theater my daughter and I were greeted with Derek Smith’s simple set design of an open stage covered with multiple platforms of varying heights, an aged barn frame, and a projected backdrop. Multiple instruments were set all over the stage and the whole composition reminded me of The Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Theater. The pre-show music was all Johnny Cash, and truly set the mood for the evening.
The lights were dimmed and the performers entered the stage with lighting designed by B Butterbaugh. I immediately felt taken back in time. Jeni Schaefer’s costumes complemented the simple set. She had an effective use of clothing to identify the who and the where of each scene, and the wigs were mostly on spot for the ladies. There was one wig issue early in the performance — it was corrected between scenes, and the next time you saw the character you couldn’t see any issues. Steven Allegretto’s sound design was mostly clean. There was no feedback, and the volume of the voices with instruments was balanced, and it did not feel like they were competing against each other. There were a couple of times that the mic did not come in on time, but as a whole it was good.
My biggest takeaway was the immense talent in the cast. Not only did each of them sing, they all played multiple instruments. The harmonies were very nice, and for some performers they were stronger as a group than as an individual. Ben Hope’s portrayal of the Man in Black was spot on. His performance that touched me the most was when he sang “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” It was soulful and emotional. He portrayed the pain and discovery of Johnny re-finding himself with such honesty.
The stand out performance in the cast for me was Emily Mikesell. Her voice is smooth and rich and simply drew me into each of the songs she sang. Katie Barton, who plays June Carter Cash, has a lovely voice, but at times her accent took away from the performance. The duets with Hope and Barton were well done. I enjoyed how their voices complemented each other. One of the most poignant moments of the show came as Barton was singing with Hope. She falls silent and walks away from him with love in her eyes as Hope continues to sing. This portrayal of June Carter Cash’s death was as moving as it was simple. There was a lot of audience interaction throughout the show and some cute one liners that made the audience chuckle.
The musicality of the show rivaled the vocal performances. William Neil (keyboard) and Tau Chapman (drums), kept the show pace moving and had a playful interaction with the cast. They each had a small solo on their instrument towards the end that was fun and entertaining. Neil even joined in with Sean Powell as they played trumpets for a rousing rendition of “Ring of Fire.” This was one of my daughter’s favorite moments. While their horn playing wasn’t perfect, it was perfect for the show and highlighted a memorable scene.
Mikesell played the fiddle and stand-up bass. Her fiddle playing was engaging and she played that bass with graceful fluidity. Powell played that same bass with gusto and flair — two very different styles that were both successful and fun to watch. My favorite musician was Gill Braswell. He played both the electric and acoustic guitar. He had the presence of someone who has been playing a lifetime and the guitar was simply another appendage. Barton switched between so many different instruments I was awed. She handled each very well. Hope played the acoustic guitar and steel guitar with great comfort and ease.
The set design, costumes, lighting, and sound design were all strong and cohesive, but the true gem of the show was the intimacy and harmonious relationship of the actors and musicians. The entire performance was a strong piece of work, and one I would recommend for all ages. As we were walking to the car my daughter pulled out her phone and asked if she could play DJ on the way home. As we pulled away from the venue, “Ring of Fire” began to play through the speakers of the car, and I had to smile.
Apparently, my daughter has a new playlist to add to her collection.