Confession: I don’t know a whole lot about Johnny Cash. I remember he died in 2003 sometime shortly after I graduated high school, wore all black, had a couple hits I could recognize, and there was this whole funny business over whether his first wife was Italian or a light-skinned Black woman passing. Oh, and he performed at San Quentin prison. That’s about it. But I figured if “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” was anything like the production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” I saw at Actors a couple years ago, I’d exit the theater with a fully sketched out understanding of Cash’s life.
While I did pick up a few more tidbits about this legendary country singer, “Ring of Fire” is more about the music than the man behind the hits. But I don’t think that got in the way of any of the fun to be had. If you’re a Cash novice like me, take a whirl past the man’s Wikipedia page before you see the play. And for die-hard Cash fans, Actor’s is doing a live band karaoke singalong session Saturday, August 10.
Although not marked in the program as such, my plus-one and I referred to Corbin Mayer as “Young Johnny Cash” and Craig McEldowney as “Older Johnny Cash” with the two swapping off as Cash throughout the production and sometimes with Eldowney serving as narrator to the actions of Mayer. Mayer is as much a treat sonically as he is visually with a deep, sensuous voice that had more than just a few folks in the Jory theater swooning. McEldowney certainly embodied Cash in his body language and expressions and helped the audience appreciate the long arc of time that was Cash’s career.
Alex Keiper was on triple duty in roles that were clearly Cash’s mother, Cash’s first wife and June Carter – someone cast her in a one-woman play! As Carter she lands all the funny bits of dialogue and humorous songs, but it was her moving portrayal as Cash’s lonesome first wife while singing “I Still Miss Someone” that got the tears going. And Aimee Hanyzewski’s lighting design during this number was impeccable.
Rounding out the cast are Brian Russell Carey and Paul Wyatt as members of the band. All the cast members played their own instruments – several different instruments – while also singing and pulling off some dance moves, too! Carey mainly strummed the upright bass and even had a trick or two up his sleeve. The energy on stage never faltered and one could easily imagine this troupe actually hitting the road together and in a way they have by reprising their roles from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of “Ring of Fire” for Actors.
“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” runs through August 25 at Actors Theatre. Details can be found here.