Jukebox musicals come in all forms. There are shows, like Smokey Joe’s Cafe, which string hit tunes of a composer/composing team together in vignettes structured around a song. You have musicals with a true-to-life storyline - Jersey Boys and Beautiful being two of the most well-known. Finally, there are hybrid shows of the aforementioned types - part book musical, part song cavalcade. Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash show, falls into the latter category. The production is rock and rolling the Ivoryton Playhouse through September 11.
The seven very talented actors/musicians, under the sure-handed direction of Musical Director David M. Lutken - bring the country legend to life - from his humble beginnings in rural Arkansas through his marriages, triumphs, setbacks and final redemption. There are dozens of songs presented from his wide-ranging catalog. There are hymnals and inspirationals, country tunes, rollicking rockabilly numbers, and the hits that crossed over to the pop charts such as "Folsom Prison Blues", "I Walk the Line", "Ring of Fire", and "A Boy Named Sue." Audience members, like myself, unfamiliar with many of the country legend’s vast repertoire of music will, nonetheless, be charmed by the energetic, joyful presentations of the songs.
The first part of the musical begins with the childhood of Johnny Cash and moves through his young adult life. It was a hardscrabble existence for him and his family. There was sorrow and tragedy but, throughout, song and their religious convictions helped pull them through. We witness the singer’s rise to fame - on radio, at the Grand Ole Opry and on his television variety show - as the production pulsates into Act II. His continued success, though, is belied by drug addiction, depression and eventual incarceration before he gets his life back on track.
The book of the show, created by Richard Maltby, Jr., runs swiftly through Act I, only getting bogged down when too much exposition takes center stage. Act II, while retaining the high dynamism of Act I, has more somber moments as Cash’s life becomes increasingly complex and troubled.
Johnny Cash is portrayed by two adult actors - Sam Sherwood and David M. Lutken. Each presents different perspectives and viewpoints of the singer. They, along with the other five accomplished performers - Brittany Brook, Morgan Morse, Leenya Rideout, Nygel D. Robinson, and Spiff Wiegand - portray multiple characters with a noteworthy level of skill and deftness. The actors/actresses are also quite proficient on a variety of instruments as they accompany themselves during all the musical numbers. There is a true chemistry between the cast members, which translates to high-spirited enjoyment for the audience.
Director Sherry Lutken keeps the pacing brisk with scene changes transitioning smoothly. She nimbly melds together the numerous songs and players into a seamless whole. As choreographer, Ms. Lutken adds a quick step here, a promenade there only when it decidedly enhances the moment on stage.
Scenic Designer Cully Long’s set conjures up Cash’s early life - a weathered front porch is off to one side - yet is versatile enough to aptly parallel other significant events of his life.
Ring of Fire - well-worth a trip to the historic Ivoryton Playhouse - through September 11. Click here for dates, times and ticket information.