By: Tatum Hunter ~Opinions & Editorials Editor~
Despite fantastic musicality and performances, “Ring of Fire” misses the mark in terms of narration, innovation and appeal
Musical theater has its own special corniness, loved and hated by some, that influences anything it touches.
The jukebox musical, with its Broadway-style singing and choreography, may be a perfect format
for the dance anthems of Michael Jackson or the dramatic choral arrangements of Queen. It is not a good fit for the music of Johnny Cash.
Playhouse in the Park’s “Ring of Fire” is a two-act musical review of Cash’s greatest hits. The show consists of four main performers and a band of “Nashville’s finest” musicians, as Playhouse creative director Blake Robison called them.
The performers, two female and two male, acted out the life of Johnny Cash as the ensemble worked its way through the best of the Cash canon. The musicians also stepped in to play various supporting roles.
The singing and the musicianship were fantastic. Every musician and vocalist was in complete control of his or her instrument and the arrangements were spot on.
Among the four main performers, the two women stood out most. Trenna Barnes, a powerful soprano and Allison Briner, a soulful alto, gave excellent, engaging performances.
Among the band members, the upright bass player, John W. Marshall, appeared especially talented.
Many times, he was given some time in the spotlight, and he wowed the audience with his charisma
and bass-slapping skills. The tech was another excellent aspect of the show. The lighting and sound succeeded in “walking the line,” adding to the show while not distracting from it. The mood of each song was complemented by the lighting, and not a note was lost in the sound mix.
The set and costumes, while superbly crafted, did not add much to the show. The choice of a log cabin for the set emphasized Cash’s “down home” appeal, but was an inappropriate representation of Cash’s life as a whole. The choice to present Cash as a simple country boy undermined the effectiveness of the show. While many certainly find Cash’s origins endearing, and the show did a good job relating Cash’s early life, the show seemed to focus on romanticizing the country roots of Cash’s music while glossing over the rock ’n’ roll edge he acquired as he developed as a musician.
It’s clear in his music that Cash had a heart for the poor, the imprisoned and the downtrodden. He struggled with addiction and broken relationships. His music was infused with the pain as well
as the hope he saw within himself and others.
It is not difficult to imagine how Cash would feel to see his life and his music reduced to stage clichés
and corny choreography that dance around the realities of his life.
All in all, “Ring of Fire” did a great job being what it is — a retelling of Cash’s life as a sentimental
Southern cabaret. However, it failed to give Cash’s legacy the honest, nuanced treatment it deserves.
Cash’s music speaks for itself, but “Ring of Fire” did not give it the chance.