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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash
Arizona Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Scottsboro Boys and School of Rock


Brian Mathis, Allison Briner-Dardenne,
Trenna Barnes, and Michael Monroe Goodman

Photo by Tim Fuller
As far as jukebox musicals that feature songs associated with an individual performer or band go, there have been several that were big hits like Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys, and others that were big misses, including Lennon and Good Vibrations. Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash falls somewhere in between. After a short run on Broadway the creators trimmed the show to make it focus less on the biography of Cash and become almost solely a tribute to his music. Arizona Theatre Company's production features exceptional performers, most of whom have appeared in other productions of this musical, and while the show itself shortchanges some of Cash's history, it still results in a highly entertaining tribute to the man in black.

Ring of Fire features a fairly straightforward timeline to lay out an abbreviated version of Cash's life. It begins with the tragic event in 1944 when his older brother Jack was tragically injured by a saw at the mill where he worked, and ends with Cash's death in 2003. Organized in various sections, creator Richard Maltby Jr. includes over 30 tunes written by or associated with Cash and his family to portray the hardships and history of this famous man. All of Cash's biggest hits are included and the large billboard-size screen on John Iacovelli's exceptional country home set displays images of the times and photos of Cash and his family, which help flesh out the lyrics, time, and setting of some of the numbers. However, the minimal amount of narration only gives us a few highlights of his career and slightly shortchanges the influence of his wife June Carter Cash on both his music and the changes he made in his life to become a better man.

Also, while June gets an appropriate send-off in song, the fact that she died just four months before her husband isn't even mentioned, yet when Johnny's death is stated we are told that he was surrounded by his entire family. If you didn't know that June died first you would think that she was also by his side. The show runs a little over two hours so the inclusion of a few more statements about Cash's life and the importance of June and other events would greatly help to turn it into a more fitting tribute to this legendary man and performer.

The cast is composed of four singers and an onstage band that play, sing, and participate in the action. The four main singers include two men and two women who evoke older and younger versions of Johnny and June, along with the older couple also portraying Johnny's parents in the early part of the show. Trenna Barnes and Michael Monroe Goodman play the younger couple, while Allison Briner-Dardenne and Brian Mathis portray the older duo. The use of two couples works well to help flesh out some of the biographical moments. The fact that all four have excellent vocal skills, with earthy tones and lush harmonies that deliver rich versions of the almost three dozen country and folk tunes, helps immensely.

Beyond hearing the Cash classics "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "Get Rhythm," "Jackson," and "Folsom Prison Blues," there are many highlights in the show. A few of my favorites include Barnes and Goodman's playful and romantic version of "If I Were a Carpenter," the act two opener "I've Been Everywhere" that features the entire cast and band playing guitars, Mathis' version of "Man in Black" that begins with him reciting the lyrics of the song, and Barnes' soaring solo of "All Over Again."

Director Randal Myler does a nice job of keeping the pace moving along while allowing the serious, introspective moments and songs to have resonance. He wisely stages the majority of the performances toward the front of the stage, which helps provide a closeness and intimacy to the performers and the lyrics. Myler never tries to turn this into a cheap Johnny Cash impersonation Las Vegas style revue show. This works in the show's favor, as the quartet portraying Johnny and June don't look like them and don't try to. The fact that they don't attempt to mimic the couple works quite well to instill the show with a sense of authenticity, by turning Johnny and June into a sort of "everyman" and "everywoman" to make the songs, lyrics and show extremely relatable.

Cash had a fascinating life and the hardships he faced, including the death of his brother when Johnny was a young boy, his awareness of the pain and suffering of the downtrodden, and his own addictions, clearly formed and were a constant presence in his life, music, and his overall somber tone and personality. While I wish there were a few more facts presented in the show to give us more details of Cash's life, especially a little more about his addictions, June, and her passing, the excellent performers and great songs make Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash at Arizona Theatre Company a memorable experience.

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash at Arizona Theatre Company runs through April 16th, 2017, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling (602) 256 – 6995.

Director: Randal Myler
Music Director: Jeff Lisenby
Choreographer: Denise Patton
Scenic Design: John Iacovelli
Lighting Design: Kenton Yeager
Costume Design: Gordon DeVinney
Sound Design: Brian Jerome Peterson
Production Stage Manager: Bruno Ingram

Cast:
Trenna Barnes
Allison Briner-Dardenne
Michael Monroe Goodman
Brian Mathis
Walter Hartman: Musician / Ensemble, Fiddle
Ben Hope: Musician / Ensemble, Guitar / Mandolin / Harmonica
Brantley Kearns: Musician / Ensemble, Fiddle
Jeff Lisenby: Musician / Ensemble, Keyboard / Accordion
John W. Marshall: Musician / Ensemble, Upright Bass
Brent Moyer: Musician / Ensemble, Guitar / Trumpet


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