Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: Laguna Playhouse's Ring of Fire, the Music of Johnny Cash

Stephen Brunson, Nathan Yates Douglass & Romaine Rachline 
Photos by Ed Krieger

Jukebox musicals come in all shapes and sizes. Some find a way to integrate the songs of a particular group or singer in such a way that the end result is more than satisfying as an evening of theatre. Jersey Boys, for example, tells the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons from the viewpoint of each of the band members and offers terrific insight into the arc of the iconic 1960’s singing group, while Mamma Mia!, one of the most successful jukebox musicals of all, uses the pop songs of ABBA to comically punctuate the tale of a young bride in search of a father to walk her down the aisle.

Others rely on the music itself to create the experience, rather than supplementing it with a typical story line. Such is the case with Ring of Fire, The Music of Johnny Cash, which offers biographical data and stories interspersed between thirty-four of the Man in Black’s hits. The show plays out more like a tribute concert than a theatrical production – a choice that can still have a powerful effect, especially if the treatment of the material honors the source. With Johnny Cash, that means not backing down from the depth of emotion and underlying heartache present in many of his songs. 

Instead, as directed by Steve Steiner at Laguna Playhouse, it looks and feels more like a cruise ship revue or county fair variety show. Happy singers with perky smiles take over the stage, shouting their lines with exuberance and great diction as they show the audience a grand good time. Given that Steiner is taking Ring of Fire on tour to play a 3-month stint at a Reno casino next, it’s no wonder that this is the director’s style of choice. The downside, however, is that it doesn’t allow the audience to experience the full breadth and power of Johnny Cash’s music.

Cash had demons, and they all found their way into his songs. He grew up poor, working the cotton fields with his family in the years following the Great Depression. The loss of his brother, Jack, in a sawmill accident would cause him a great deal of guilt for not acting on his intuition, and in his later years, addiction to drugs and alcohol, brushes with the law, and a divorce from his first wife would contribute to a rambling unrest. He championed the downtrodden and sang to remind us of our humanity, and for that he became an American icon. But there is little of that complexity to be found in Laguna Beach.

Still, this is first time I’ve seen the show where all ten members of the cast play multiple instruments and sing, rather than having lead singers who play some guitar but let the band do most of the instrumental work. Vocal ability is a mixed bag, with intonation and stamina being an issue the night I saw the show. Several of the lead singers seemed vocally tired and after a while, even a smile doesn’t do enough to carry a song that needs more driving intensity, though there are some lovely choral sections to be found within some of the songs.

You’ll hear haunting harmonica work by Nathan Yates Douglass and hot guitar solos by Zach Sicherman. Sicherman, Logan Farine and Romain Rachline give “Egg Suckin’ Dog” a great comic spin and all the men deliver a powerful “Going to Memphis” with chain gang staging and strong choreographed movements. “All Over Again” shows off Courtney Rada’s pipes and the “Big River” trio of Douglass, Rachline and Stephen Brunson is a winner. Amberly Rosen also displays some fine fiddle playing.

The costumes and set design fit with the modern presentational style of the show. Contemporary western clothing accents and two versions of the “man in black” looks are featured. The duo level stage houses the main band members up on its second level leaving the main floor as the performance area for most of the songs. 

Serviceable but predictable, there are no surprises in this straightforward production of Ring of Fire, and for some, that may be just fine. For me, I would have preferred a little more kick and a whole lot more heat.

Justin Droegemueller, Allison Fund, Courtney Rada & Amberly Rosen

L-R: Romaine Rachline, Allison Fund, Amberly Rosen, Logan Farine,
Courtney Rada and Nathan Douglass Yates

Stephen Brunson, Amberly Rosen, Zach Sicherman & Courtney Rada

Jan.7 - Feb. 2, 2014
Laguna Playhouse
606 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach
Tickets: (949) 497-ARTS (2787) or 

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