By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It’s one of the signature showbiz openers of the 20th century: “Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.”
That greeting is the raison d’être of Ring of Fire, the musically fulsome/ dramatically skimpy jukebox musical that’s currently eliciting full-house cheers at the Citadel. It’s a musical biography with the biography mostly removed. And although it doesn’t quite land quite that deep rumbling cadence of the original, Jonas Shandel’s striking performance does reference the man in black as he circles the turntable of his life, watches, and conjures his younger self (Lawrence Libor) and his muse, puckish country music aristocrat June Carter (Quinn Dooley).
The first-rate director Tracey Flye has her work cut out for her making artful an odd piece that makes considerable musical demands on its versatile six-member cast without giving them much chance to be characters or have personalities. Let no one accuse Ring of Fire of wallowing in lurid minutiae, or colorizing a dramatic arc, shouldering an oppressive baggage of exposition or (like Mamma Mia!) concocting a flimsy play to go with the songs. Its landing on narrative events is, to say the least, light. And Flye’s production is cool with that: it doesn’t try to lard out what’s not there. Hard-scrabble Depression era origins, family tragedy, touring, addiction as a result of touring, the Grand Ole Opry, rescue by June Carter…. they’re alluded to, fleetingly, but you have to know how to take the hints and add them up to arrive at anything like a story.
The “dialogue” runs to non-zingers like “remember that song we wrote? let’s do it, guys!” Survivors, like me, of countless revues with portentous and embarrassing expository annotations, are in a position to appreciate the restraint.
If you’re looking outside the songs he either chose or wrote to understand Cash’s empathy for the outsider, or the struggle between religion and the temptations of the flesh, or ambivalence about the essential conservatism of the South, etc., you are definitely looking in the wrong place. Johnny Cash fans won’t feel the lack; there is, after all, an ample song list – 34 songs strong — and a cast with the wit and chops to deliver it. For the rest of us, though, it feels a little thin. Ring of Fire is no Million Dollar Quartet, with its resonant glimpse of legendary figures in their earlier incarnations, brought together in an unexpected configuration.
Apparently, Johnny Cash wasn’t a character in the debut edition of Ring of Fire, which fizzled on Broadway in 2006. And although the man in black is corporeally present here, both singing and observing songs sung by his younger self, he’s still not really a character. He’s more of a reference guide to an icon. Shandel’s performance is livelier and more charismatic in Act II. And Flye’s production weaves motifs, including the train whistle (“the man who gets off at the last stop, is he a good man?”), in an attempt to fashion a real piece out of a bunch of indelible songs.
Dooley, who captures the sprightly, multi-angled vocal delivery of June Carter in uncanny ways (and plays a cluster of instruments including fiddle, piano and guitar in the course of a multi-character assignment), is winsome June Carter. Her delivery of I Still Miss Someone is a highlight of the evening, along with duets including While I’ve Got It On My Mind. And Libor, who can’t fall back on physical resemblance to Johnny Cash, nonetheless applies himself with intensity to conjuring a younger version of the star.
The ensemble, which includes Julien Arnold, Matt Blackie, and Daniel Williston (on a variety of instruments), is impressively animated and versatile. To them (under the able musical direction of Steven Greenfield) falls the comic business of the Grand Ole Opry. They tuck in to the occasion with zest, and there are nice vocal harmonies on display throughout.
June is dressed in a succession of perfectly detailed frocks by Cory Sincennes. His set design – slotted wood and rusty corrugated tin backlit by Jareth Li— has an atmospheric kind of distressed road house look.
That’s perhaps a tip-off for your own experience of a show that hints at a story but doesn’t deliver it. You get to hear a lot of classic music, live and up close, delivered impressively by a cast of six. And of a summer night, there’s entertainment value in that.
Ring of Fire
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