Sunday, February 5, 2012

Honoring a Legend - Cabrillo Music Theatre's Ring of Fire

Jason Edwards and Kelli Provart
Photo: Ed Krieger

It’s appropriate that the set for Cabrillo Music Theatre’s Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical Show consists of an unassuming circular wooden platform bordered by a projection screen at one end and a simple cabin in the woods at the other. The screen cycles through black & white images from Cash’s life and surroundings like a series of Dorothea Lange photos, and the cabin’s welcoming porch is home to a group of country musicians just sittin’ around ‘pickin’ and a-grinnin,’ jamming much like an old group of friends would on a Sunday afternoon. To them it’s all about the music and that’s really the whole idea in this celebration of one of country music’s most respected artists. You'll find nothing pretentious here. 

Johnny Cash released 96 albums and 153 singles over the course of his career and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and the Gospel Hall of Fame. He was a man of humble beginnings who never forgot the poor and downtrodden and wore black as a reminder that there were many injustices in the world yet to be made right. He carried a heavy load and fought his own demons along the way.

Ring of Fire is a celebration of Cash’s life and music, directed by and starring Jason Edwards, along with Kelli Provart, Troy Burgess, and Treena Barnes. Edwards starred in Ring of Fire on Broadway and has since directed several regional productions, including previous engagements at La Mirada Theatre, Fullerton Civic Light Opera, and Arkansas Rep.

More than anything, I was struck by how reverential he is toward the legacy of this incredibly prolific artist. You can see it in the way he offers up stories about Johnny Cash, sometimes commenting about the legend as himself, sometimes speaking in first person (as does Burgess), though neither attempts to impersonate him. Rather, he and the others capture the essence of Cash in the lessons of the stories they choose to tell and covering more than thirty of Cash’s songs in the process.

One especially moving sequence is the ensemble’s Five Feet High and Rising as Cash’s family sings about the good that comes from adversity, then segues into a story about how John learned the news of his brother’s saw mill accident (which resulted in his death) and a hauntingly bittersweet version of In the Sweet Bye and Bye. Sobering moments like these contrast with story songs and familiar favorites like I Walk the Line, Boy Named Sue, and Jackson, and up-tempo hits like Daddy Sang Bass/Will The Circle Be Unbroken – a highlight of the night that also features some amazing musicians. They are John Foley on guitar, dobro, mandolin & harmonica, Brantley Kearns on fiddle, John W. Marshall on bass guitar (and man, can he slap that bass), Brent Moyer on guitar & trumpet, Jeff Lisenby on accordion & keyboards, and Mark San Filippo on drums. I’ll give them a halleluiah any day!

Provart and Barnes provide insight into the women in Cash’s life – his mama, sister, fans, studio singers, and his wife, June Carter. Both women are perfectly suited to this style of music. Provart is a master at wringing out the anguish in a song and then turning it around to lift you up in true country fashion, and Barnes has a gutsy sweetness in her voice and a twinkle in her eye that will make you laugh every time she gets feisty. Edwards' version of Man in Black is simply divine and Burgess has a vulnerability that is heartbreaking. Plus, it’s especially great to hear the individual colors of their voices blend into one sound when all four sing in harmony. What a musician’s dream.

Aside from a couple of slightly awkward transitions when the supporting musicians become characters in the story and one or two comedic vignettes that last too Egg Suckin’ Dog, the show is a satisfying tribute to a country music legend. Fans of Johnny Cash will not be disappointed and those unfamiliar with the details of Cash’s life will leave with a deeper understanding of the man and his music. I loved it.

Costumes, which are terrific, are by Nashville costume designer Trish Clark and the set I mentioned earlier is the work of John Iacovelli, who incidentally won an Emmy for his production design for A&E’s Peter Pan Starring Cathy Rigby.

Ring of Fire runs through February 12 at Cabrillo Music Theatre at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. Click Here for tickets and more information.

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