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RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH presented by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park through Feb. 15. Click here for more information on the production. I attended the opening night performance.
Whenever I hear the name Johnny Cash, I almost immediately think of my Dad. He was a big fan of “The Man in Black” and I remember the multiple albums in his record collection. I also have vague recollections of Cash’s TV appearances which Dad was always sure to catch (which wasn’t hard considering there were only three TV channels back then).
This was my first time seeing RING OF FIRE. Perhaps, with the success of Playhouse’s other recent jukebox musical, I had my expectations set too high for this production.
Part of the problem is the show itself. It’s not really a theatrical piece or a concert. There isn’t enough information in the nearly non-existent book to qualify it as a biography. The cast consists of two male/female couples, (one older/one younger) all simply referred to as a “Principal” in the program. The Principals switch personas from scene to scene with little, if any exposition. This format can cause confusion as to who is who at any given moment, which was a complaint I heard echoed by audience members at intermission.
Of the four Principals, Trenna Barnes is a vocal stand-out. Her voice is beautiful, strong and the embodiment of a country singer to me. The remaining three performers, while talented vocalists, are singing country music, not country music singers.
For the set, designer John Iacovelli smartly creates a replica of the Cash cabin upstage. The floor and main playing area is a large circular platform with two outer rings. As blocked, the bulk of the show is performed to only two-thirds of the audience. Patrons sitting audience left-ish are seldom acknowledged by the performers. Even more confusing is the directors’ (Principal performer Jason Edwards and assistant director/choreographer Denise Patton) decision to block multiple times on the outer ring, audience right (in front of the actor exit), so nearly half of the audience are watching performers’ backs. As a whole, I found the blocking and choreography to be flat, uninspired and lacking in energy. The lighting design by Kenton Yeager is a bit too dim at times, and relies a bit too heavily on spotlights.
The musicians for this production are incredibly talented. The music, under the direction of Jeff Lisenby, is top-notch. As with the original production, the musicians are used to fill additional roles as needed, with mixed results. When performing, several of the musicians look uncomfortable out from behind their instruments. For the Act II opener, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” nearly a dozen performers are lined across the stage, each singing a couple of city names in turn. A cute gimmick, but the differences in volume and diction derails the number.
Overall RING OF FIRE is a perfectly fine production but nothing that excited me. Serious fans of Johnny Cash will find this production more enjoyable, but I’m not sure it will win-over any new fans for the Man in Black.
My rating: 3.25 out of 5
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