Jukebox musicals are becoming a popular staple at People’s Light. Following last year’s homage to Woody Guthrie (Woody Sez), this year’s offering, RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH, sings the story of the famed “Man in Black” through the works he performed and those that impacted him. Created by Richard Maltby, Jr. and conceived by William Meade, the show is part tribute concert, but without the usual look-alike/sound-alike cast, and part bio-musical, but without a traditional book. Instead, clusters of songs evoke each phase in the life and career of the country superstar, with but a few spoken words between the numbers, and brief voiceovers, with projected black-and-white vintage photos, between the sections.
The ever-affable and engaging David Lutken returns to People’s Light from his starring role in Woody Sez, leading a cast of nine singers/musicians through songs of Cash’s childhood yearnings to his success in Memphis, at the Grand Ole Opry, and on his own ABC TV show, from serving time in prison to finding redemption in his faith and family. His vocal range is remarkable, as is his mastery of a wide array of instruments. Sam Sherwood and Neil Friedman (replaced by Scott Sowers beginning on 8/9) contribute their fine voices and musicianship as the younger and older Cash–though in a non-linear style, often appearing on stage simultaneously, singing and playing together throughout the performance. The men are paired with Nyssa Duchow, Deb Lyons, and Helen Jean Russell (who also appeared in Woody Sez) representing Cash’s wife June Carter at different ages. While their vocals are not on a par with the men’s, they play their country instruments with command and panache; especially noteworthy is Duchow on fiddle. Skilled musicians Jon Brown, Michael Hicks, and Eric Scott Anthony (who also serves as music director) round out the team of spirited performers.
Director Sherry Lutken takes a mostly lighthearted approach to the show, creating the exuberance of a hootenanny and filling it with plenty of country corn, putting a comedic spin on several of the songs: “Flushed . . . ” and “Egg-Suckin’ Dog” parody the amateurish acts of the Grand Ole Opry, and “I’ve Got Stripes” lampoons the punishments of a prison chain gang. Along with the lesser-known songs that define the places and eras, all of Cash’s most famous hits are there, so you can join in the nostalgia by singing and clapping along with the terrific “Jackson,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” and the eponymous “Ring of Fire,” the ridiculous “Boy Named Sue” (written by Shel Silverstein), and the oddly upbeat rendition (as Cash and Carter performed it) of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe.”
Whether the style is country, folk, devotional, or rockabilly, the expert orchestrations by Steven Bishop and Jeff Lisenby, sound design by Lucas Fendlay, and harmonies of the ensemble are rich and satisfying; a highlight is the full company’s rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Among the most entertaining of the numbers is “I’ve Been Everywhere,” sung in line to an increasingly fast tempo by the entire cast, each calling out a locale to which Cash had travelled. Lively blocking and choreography, simple props and apropos lighting (by Gregory Scott Miller) support the lyrics and moods of the songs. James F. Pyne’s scenic design (a distressed wooden barn with a platform for the band and movable steps that change with the scenes) and costumes by Marla J. Jurglanis (with cowboy shirts and boots, denim jeans and flannel plaids, and, of course, outfits of head-to-toe black) enhance the rustic mood and capture the familiar look and feel of Cash and his entourage.
If you’re a fan of Lutken and his brand of jukebox musical, you can catch him back at People’s Light in The Road: My Life with John Denver.
[Leonard C. Haas Stage, People's Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, PA] July 20-August 14, 2016; http://peopleslight.org.