“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” is a play about a band, and I like plays that focus on bands, and musical groups. The production features a cast of six musicians - five men and one woman - all of whom can sing and dance, as well as playing the guitar, double bass, piano, and drums, superbly well.
In its structure, the production immediately reminded me of John MacLachlan Gray’s musical “Don Messers Jubilee”, which Aquarius produced back in 1990 at the Hamilton Place studio; a very similar play although it focused on a Canadian band on the CBC, who had no hit records. But the obvious similarity is that it uses the format of a concert to tell the story and biographies of a musical group.
Lawrence Libor plays the younger version of Johnny Cash, as an artist signed to Sun Records, and learning his craft; while Adam Stevenson, plays the older and more familiar “Man in Black”, who comments on memories of his past, and relives them again through the songs, each of which sparks a memory of incidents from his life.
Quinn Dooley, plays fiddle, piano and most memorably, the role of June Carter Cash, the love of Johnny’s life. Greg Hawco, Brandon McGibbon, and Daniel Williston round out the rest of the company, playing drums, guitar, piano and double bass. In real life, Cash had a wonderful ensemble of pickers and players around him, and these actor/musicians deliver all of that and more in this production.
The show was brilliantly imagined and staged by director Tracey Flye, who has a background in musical theatre, having worked for many, many years with the Mirvishes, and on the regional theatre circuit. Her experience in staging this kind of work was expertly demonstrated. It is of course “a jukebox musical”, but it's also, we must remember a play with a story to tell; a piece intended to live in the theatre, and not in a honky-tonk bar. Getting the balance correct, and keeping the audience engaged with the source material, is a real skill.
There was an odd moment during the first song, “Country Boy” when the audience started to clap along, but then the music abruptly stopped for Stevenson, to deliver a monologue. A lot of the audience would have been just as happy with a concert of the songs, without necessarily having to hear the stories that come with them. But this production aspires to something greater than just a set list of songs.
The story of Johnny Cash, and his rise from crippling poverty and then down again into deep despair after the death of his wife June Carter Cash, I think is the most compelling part of the play. We have seen this story before of course, most notably in the Oscar winning performance of Reese Witherspoon in the Golden Globe Award winning film, “Walk The Line” from 2005. But this particular script gives us a much more personal take on the biographical material, filtered as it is through the origins of the songs.
As artistic director Mary Francis Moore reminded us in the opening speech before the show, this particular play was originally scheduled to be performed in April 2020. It was canceled a few weeks away before its scheduled opening, which is a disastrous point for theatre company because it means the most of the expenses of producing the play have been spent, but without any performances it's impossible to recoup any of it. So this production is a carryover from the era of previous Aquarius artistic director Ronald Ulrich.
It certainly is a huge change in terms of what the new artistic director is now programming, so it's a kind of a last farewell to what the company was known for in the past twelve years. In common with most of Theatre Aquarius’ productions, the show is slick and well produced and is thoroughly professional. You can tell that these are people who have trained a long time and have dedicated themselves to their craft.
The setting by designer Cory Sincennes is deceptively simple, mostly a bare stage with some musical instruments hanging against a backdrop of flats. Lighting instruments, put there by lighting designer Siobhan Sleath, poke through holes in the walls, and there are some wonderful magical transformations, to several different locations such as Nashville’s legendary “Grand Old Opery”.
As it’s a jukebox musical, all the hits are here, “Ring of Fire”, “Hey Porter”, and “Jackson” are the ones that got the most audience response. But I was impressed by a lot of obscure songs that I was not immediately familiar with. In watching this production, we go through many genres including gospel, country and western, rockabilly, and even into folk at some points.
There's a massive change in tone by the second act, which begins with the song “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. This part of the play talks about Johnny Cash's addiction to amphetamines.
Then there is an extended sequence about prison, and prison reform, a cause that was dear to Cash’s heart.
Each individual member of the band gets a solo. I was particularly impressed by Daniel Williston, the double bass player, who sang a very powerful song called “I Got Stripes”, about what it is like to be incarcerated for a long period of time with no contact with the outside world.
Before we know it though we are at the end of the show, which is the finale; a succession of “the best of” songs, the ones that everybody knows off my heart. And certainly the band kicks into high gear and plays all of this material with a great deal of panache and gusto. I can report that the production earned two standing ovations. They even gave us an encore number with the iconic “A Boy Named Sue”, to send us out the door.
It has taken two years to finally see this production on the Theatre Aquarius stage, based upon what I saw on Friday evening the wait was well worth it. Even if you come in not knowing this music; by the end of the play, you are singing and clapping along, with everyone else.
“Ring of Fire; the Music of Johnny Cash’ is an infectious show; a crackerjack of a production. So I encourage you to quickly “Walk The Line”, past those “Folsom Prison” walls, and dive down deep into this “Ring of Fire” as quickly as you can Hamilton. You won’t be disappointed.
RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH
By Richard Maltby Jr. & William Meade
Directed by Tracey Flye
Musical Director: David Terriault
A Theatre Aquarius production,
At the Dofasco Centre For the Arts,
June 10 - 25, 2022
Tickets: 905-522-7529 or theatreaquarius.org