Johnny Cash fans will be in country music heaven through August 1 as FCLO Music Theatre present Ring Of Fire: The Music Of Johnny Cash. Correction: make that music fans, pure and simple.  Singer-songwriter-icon Johnny Cash transcended easy classification, blending rock and roll, rockabilly, folk, and gospel, making this production a musical event of the first order.

Ring Of Fire, which played the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway in 2006, makes no attempt to be a full-fledged Cash biography.  The Oscar-winning Walk The Line did that just fine, thank you, so what Richard Maltby, Jr. and William Meade have created here is less Jersey Boys than concert slash life retrospective, and an entertaining one it is.

A sensational cast of musical theater performers and country musicians (ten in all) perform three dozen of Cash’s most memorable tunes, including the title song (one of Johnny’s 13 Number One Singles), his very first single (1955’s “Cry, Cry, Cry”), his first #1 (1956’s “I Walk The Line”), as well as hits from the 60s (“Jackson,” “A Boy Named Sue”), 70s (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”), and beyond.

Beginning with a striking “Opening/Montage,” with stars Troy Allan Burgess, Jason Edwards, Christa Jackson, and Kelli Provart singing snippets of what’s to come, Ring Of Fire moves from a quick family history recap to Johnny’s Arkansas upbringing.  No single performer “plays” Johnny, though each assumes Johnny’s voice at one time or another.  We learn of Cash’s Depression Era upbringing, the song “Five Feet High And Rising” recalling a time when the family farm was flooded, and also of the tragic death of Johnny’s older brother Jack, at age 14 (“In The Sweet By And By”).

Music was always part of the Cash family’s life, as described in “Daddy Sang Bass.” (“Daddy sang bass, mama sang tenor, me and little brother would join right in there. Singin’ seems to help a troubled soul.”) From the very beginning, Johnny had a talent for music. “I’m thankful for my gift,” one of Ring Of Fire’s Johnnys tells us.  “Mama always called it ‘the gift.’”

Music took Johnny to the stages of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, and Ring Of Fire takes us there too, with the infectious “Get Rhythm,” the hilarious “Dirty Old Egg Suckin’ Dog,” and the even funnier “Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart.”  (“In the garbage disposal of your dreams I’ve been ground up dear. On the river of your plans I’m up the creek.”)

Though most of the songs in Ring Of Fire are Johnny Cash compositions, there’s also a pair by Kris Kristofferson (“Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” and “Why Me Lord”), Tim Hardin’s “If I Were A Carpenter,” and several others covered by Cash during his prolific career (an incredible 96 studio albums and 153 singles).

Despite seven overnight stays in jail for misdemeanors, Johnny Cash never served a prison sentence, but his compassion for prisoners led him to begin performing concerts at various prisons starting in the late 1960s. Much of the second act of Ring Of Fire reflects this, beginning with the men-on-a-chain-gang “Going To Memphis,” “Cocaine Blues,” and “Orleans Parish Prison.”

Ring Of Fire concludes with one of Johnny’s earliest compositions, “Hey Porter,” bringing the evening full circle to audience cheers.

The FCLO production isn’t quite what Broadway audiences saw. The original’s six principal singers are now four, a few songs have been cut or replaced, and the set appears to have been greatly simplified. This matters not much at all, however, as the still very full evening is about Johnny Cash music, and with Burgess, Edwards, Jackson, and Provart singing up a storm, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Original cast member Edwards, who has taken over directorial reins, has very much the Johnny Cash as Man In Black look, performing “Straight A’s In Love,” “Big River,” “Man In Black,” and “Why Me Lord” in his powerful bass of a voice.

Burgess, a member of the original Broadway cast of Aida, channels Cash to perfection in the “Straight A’s In Love,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “A Boy Named Sue.”

Atlanta Native Jackson returns to FCLO, the scene of her Scenie-winning performance as Evita, to perform a torchy “I Still Miss Someone,” a side-splitting “Flushed…,” and (as June Carter Cash) a duet of “If I Were A Carpenter” with Burgess.

Provart, returning to FCLO for the first time since her dazzling turn as Lucy in Jekyll & Hyde, is as always stellar, belting “All Over Again” as only she can and duetting “Jackson” and a flirtatious “While I’ve Got It On My Mind” with Edwards.
The four principals are backed up by a Grand Ole Opry-ready onstage six-piece band, all of whom perform double duty as singers.  There’s musical director Jeff Lisenby on keyboard, Brantley Kearns on fiddle, John W. Marshall on bass, Tom Mason and Brent Moyer on guitar, and Mark San Filippo on drums.  All cast members join voices (and guitars, ten in all) in the rousing Act Two opener “I’ve Been Everywhere.”

There’s some fine country-style dancing, staged by associate director/choreographer Jane Lanier. Orchestrations are by Steven Bishop and musical director/music arranger Lisenby.

John Iacovelli’s set has an appropriately down home feel about it, as do Ambra King Wakefield’s costumes, colorful in Act One, mostly in shades of black in Act Two. Lighting by Debra Garcia Lockwood, sound design by A.J. Martinez, and properties design by Terry Hanrahan are all up to expected FCLO standards. Donna R. Parsons is production stage manager.

Ring Of Fire doesn’t attempt to be what it’s not.  It’s neither a “jukebox musical” a la Mamma Mia or a “musical biography” a la Jersey Boys. It is, simply put, two hours of great country music and a loving tribute to the man who wrote and performed some of the best that’s ever been recorded.  It is the music of Johnny Cash, and for Man In Black fans, it doesn’t get better than that.

FCLO Music Theatre, Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.

–Steven Stanley
July 22, 2010
Photos: Kurt Jarrard

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