If you were thinking about whether to get yourself tickets to the theatrical revue of Johnny Cash’s music at the cozy space of the Chenango River Theatre, don’t drag your feet another second. You’ll be tapping your toes before you know it, laughing to split a gut, and crying your eyes out too, but haste is key. Several performances are already sold out, which tells you a lot right there.
[Editor’s Note: Due to demand, CRT has extended “Ring of Fire” until September 8th.]
This terrific show, as told through a Johnny Cash mix tape and performed live by five wonderful actors, singers, dancers, and musicians—four men and one woman—is definitely worth the trip up Upper Front Street to Greene.
First produced on Broadway in 2006, “Ring of Fire” was at the mercy of a difficult New York audience, who may have been expecting something more like the film, “Walk the Line,” which was released the year before and dramatized the tumultuous life of Johnny Cash, sometimes at the expense of the whole truth.
But the stage show, which focuses on the music, and was conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” fame, had a short run on Broadway, and that, happily, opened the door to the way off Broadway production we are so fortunate to have in Greene through September first.
Brilliantly directing both the script and music, choreographing, and leading this cast is the strawberry blond, Chris Blisset, about as far physically from the “Man in Black” as you can be, and that’s ok, preferable, in fact.
He is the first of four guys who take turns portraying characters who evoke Johnny Cash, and the music that made him a legend. He was, perhaps, a figure too big to be authentically captured by just one person, and this production counts on that.
When all five perform together, complete with at least one fiddle, acoustic and electric guitar, ukulele, bass, a harmonica, and an accordion, the result is phenomenal. Everyone takes a crack at naming the rapid fire towns in “I’ve Been Everywhere,” and seems to have a ball with the old time radio broadcast of “Get Rhythm,” which you are supposed to do if you are blue, and which also includes “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
The songs, close to 30 in all, are connected throughout by brief narrative segues, chronicling the highs and lows of Cash’s life, from the death of a brother at an early age, hard work on the family farm amidst tragedy and natural disaster, and his musical career. With one short intermission, the show moves along nicely, alternately rocking the house, and touching the heart.
I was struck by the very-close-to-home song, “Five Feet High and Rising.” I looked around at my fellow audience members and saw a lot of heads nodding with the memory of our own recent floods.
Bring tissues if you’ve recently lost someone, because “Angel Band” and the moody, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” are going to get you. Or if you are heartbroken over anything at all, there’s nothing more cathartic than a good cry, which you may have during “I Still Miss Someone.”
The other three gentlemen in the cast include a Richard Thomas look-alike, Andrew Keeler (trust me, it’s uncanny), as well as the handsome and talented Mike Rosengarten, who has the angrier Cash’s sneer, and Diego Diaz, who rounds out the cast nicely, and offers some good musical moments, too. All are closer in looks to Cash, have terrific stage presence and singing voices, although I needed just a little more volume. They shifted from one actor to the next so fast, that I am trying to remember who sang what, as it wasn’t listed in the program. I need to see it again, and may just do that!
The show doesn’t sugarcoat the troubles that Cash encountered, from addiction (“Cocaine Blues”) to incarceration (“Folsom Prison Blues”), to the loss of his beloved June, who is so beautifully captured by Jennie Malone, the sole woman in the cast.
Malone’s voice is a little more Broadway than Grand Ole Opry, but when it counts, she nails June Carter Cash’s early country sound and Nashville sensibility, and she plays a good bass and accordion, too. She also has good comic timing, as did June.
Malone told me after the show that she had to stop during rehearsals from time to time to get a grip on her own emotions. I can see why the spiritual song “On the Far Side of Jordan” where June tells Johnny that she’ll wait for him in the afterlife, would have had that effect, especially when you know that June did, in fact, go first.
But speaking of the afterlife, Cash’s image is judiciously projected on the screen above the simple set, and he looms large from time to time, like a ghost facilitating the story. Seeing some old photos of him was very cool, and not overdone at all.
There is a lot of joy and humor in this show, like the hilarious “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” and, of course, “A Boy Named Sue.” And what show about Johnny Cash would be complete without the patriotic, “Ragged Old Flag.”
As Blisset performs the song as it was originally produced, in the spoken word, slideshow images that include many iconic images in the history of the American flag are projected above. Corny, but effective.
Listening again to “Man in Black” is also a good refresher about why Cash could well be described as “a good old boy, with a bad boy persona.” And the show makes you believe that it mattered. That Cash mattered.
As Blisset writes in his program notes, Cash is “the only protest singer to be regarded as a patriot,” and “the only country singer to be esteemed by the punk rock crowd.” If you go, stick around long enough to hear a recording of Cash singing Nine Inch Nails’ heartbreaking ballad, “Hurt.” It does not find its way into the show, but is beautiful, and was piped into the empty theater at the end. Thanks to my sister, Therese Bohn, who came with me for pointing that out.
When it was over, we gave the cast a standing ovation, but the house lights had already come up. I hope they will come out and actually enjoy it when it happens again, because it will.
“Ring of Fire” runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 sharp, and Sundays at 2 through September 1st. [Editor’s Note: CRT has extended “Ring of Fire” until September 8th.] Some shows are already sold out so call the box office at 656-8499 for availability, or go to chenangorivertheatre.org. The theatre is at 991 State Route 12 in Greene.