Directing the man in black: a homecoming for Tracey Flye

Jonas Shandel in Ring of Fire, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

By Liz Nicholls,

“’Til things are brighter, I’m the man in black….”

There’s a story built into the Johnny Cash songs you’ll hear in the  jukebox musical that opens on the Citadel’s Maclab stage Thursday. Via a catalogue of some 34 songs from the famous canon, Ring of Fire leads us through the tumultuous life of the black-clad American singer-songwriter country cum folk cum pop artist who allied himself with the world’s outsiders.

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“I’m a big storyteller,” beams director Tracey Flye, on a dinner break from Ring of Fire rehearsals last week. “I love stories; I love tellers of stories.” It’s an attraction that gets a workout in the 2006 musical which bombed on Broadway and got a transformative re-fit five years ago into more of a chamber/cabaret piece, more intimate — and with Flye’s production, more focus on “using Johnny Cash’s music to let him tell his own story,” as she says. 

With her return to Edmonton and to the Citadel, Flye’s own colourful narrative takes on a sort of circle of life configuration. The Citadel’s first theatrical foray into the summertime musical season, tucked between the Freewill Shakespeare Festival and Fringe, is the Toronto-based director/ choreographer/ actor’s first time back in the brick and glass playhouse since Frog and Toad in 2007.

Tracey Flye. Photo supplied.

There are a dozen Citadel shows in the well-stocked Flye resumé, strikingly shared between the classics and musical theatre. Many of them happened during the Robin Phillips regime. “I choreographed Robin’s last show here, The Beggar’s Opera,” recalls Flye, a quick-witted, self-deprecating, good-humoured sort. “I did movement for Richard III and The Cherry Orchard. I was in Cyrano….” It’s because of what she learned from Phillips about classical theatre that she calls rehearsal “going to school…. I’ve got everyone, big and little, trained to say that!”

In fact “my first Equity theatre gig ever was at the Citadel,” says Flye. “1987. Nunsense. In the Rice.” She choreographed, and played Sister Mary Leo, the ballerina novice.

So Ring of Fire represents a homecoming of sorts for the Winnipeg-born Flye, whose family moved here when she was eight. “I consider Edmonton my home,; it’s where I did all my schooling,” including, unexpectedly, a bachelor of commerce degree from the U of A. Her major? Human resource management and industrial arbitration. Might there be the odd oblique application for a theatre artist? Flye laughs. “It’s useful every day…. Directing is a negotiation, right?”

Flye’s roots are pure showbiz; her pedigree is uniquely Canadian. Her dad, one of the Altones on radio in the ‘50s, had a CBC TV show in the ‘60s, Red River Jamboree. “My mom was a child vaudevillian and acrobat, on the (touring) circuit from age two-and-a-half through seven as Baby Joyce…. She fronted bands, did musical theatre.”

For Flye and her brother “music and fun were so much a part of our growing-up lives,” she says fondly. “The music of the 40s, 50s, 60s, the big band stuff, Frank Sinatra, the MGM musicals….” Flye would practice all the tap choreography. 

She was the kid who grew up dancing, starting with Irish and tap and moving on to jazz. When the family arrived from Winnipeg, she joined Alberta Ballet “and went all the way through the school to be a (company) apprentice…. Then I got boobs and hips instead of a tutu. And that was that,” Flye says cheerfully. “But my first love was dance. If I could have been a ballerina….”

Instead Flye discovered musical theatre and the rarefied world of the  triple-threat. “I came to realize I wouldn’t been as happy doing (ballet)…. I’m a storyteller!”

In the course of working on shows in Edmonton she met a kindred spirit, the late great Tim Ryan, founder of MacEwan’s theatre arts department; Flye considers him one of her seminal mentors. And her resumé includes many quirky under-the-radar chamber productions with Ryan’s Leave It To Jane Theatre — Diamond Studs, a musical Measure For Measure, On The Verge, Brownstone, Kander and Ebb’s Flora The Red Menace and The Rink among them. Flye has always wanted to revisit the latter, in Ryan’s honour. And John Kander himself, with whom she worked on a TV special, gave the idea his blessing.

Six months after Flye moved to Toronto in 1993, she found herself in the Broadway touring production of the Lloyd Webber concoction The Music of the Night, then toured in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Mamma Mia!. There are Stratford musicals (West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate, Evita among them)  in her career; there’s a continuing relationship, to date a dozen years long, of working with touring productions of the Queen musical We Will Rock You. She’s worked on Mirvish productions as widely divergent as Once and War Horse.

Performance has given way to a career in directing. “I’d want to know, in a big-picture way, how it all connected,” says Flye.  “And with directing, in a way, I still get to act. As a director you have to explore the world through the eyes of other characters…. When would I get to play Rochester in Jane Eyre?” she says of a Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production she worked on. “Never!”

Quinn Dooley, Jonas Shandel in Ring of Fire. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

The same would be true, needless to say, of the man in black, whose rags-to-riches story is the fabric of Ring of Fire: Depression era Arkansas share-cropper to the Grand Ole Opry and the country music hall of fame, via the tribulations and temptations of life on the road and a complex relationship with the country music aristocrat June Carter (played, like all the women in Cash’s life, by Quinn Dooley). Flye’s production has two Johnnys, one older (Jonas Shandel), one younger (Lawrence Libor). “Loosely it’s a biography, using music, told by someone looking back,” says Flye, who’s enjoyed the liberty of fashioning a piece without much in the way of stage directions, or the weight of a history of productions (she’s never seen the show).

Ring of Fire, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Ian Jackson, Epic Photography

As in Once, the actors, six in number, are the band. They each play three to five instruments, says Flye, of a piece in which movement, as opposed to choreography, figures prominently.  Ring of Fire is far bigger, more difficult (than Once),” she says. “It’s almost completely played and sung through, except for the small bits of dialogue which create a transition from one era to another…. The actors never stop moving and jumping off stuff, while playing instruments. They have to carry their instruments with them!”


Ring of Fire

Theatre: Citadel

Created by: Richard Maltby Jr. from a conception by William Meade

Directed by: Tracey Flye

Starring: Julien Arnold, Matt Blackie, Quinn Dooley, Lawrence Libor, Jonas Shandel, Daniel Williston

Running: through Aug. 11

Tickets: 780-425-1820,


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