REVIEW: RING OF FIRE at Vintage Theatre

by Owen Niland

Johnny Cash is an icon.  His sound defined country music for a generation, and his rebellious, “Man in Black” genre-defying outlaw style influenced American culture for decades.  Cash’s voice is instantly recognizable, a raw bass-baritone with an honesty that draws the listener in, regardless of the song. RING OF FIRE  now playing at Aurora’s Vintage Theater, eschews focusing on the man himself, however, preferring instead to focus on the music.  And what music it is!  A full thirty songs round-out the production, meandering from Cash’s gospel roots, country recordings and early performances at the Grand Ole Opry, to songs influenced by his lifelong love affair with his wife June Carter Cash, and ultimately the evolution of his music into socially aware protest music of the 1970s.

Director Kelly Van Oosbree and Music Director Eric Weinstein have assembled a tight cast of musicians to bring the production to life. Isabella Duran, S. Parker Goubert, Ray Anderson, Benjamin Cowhick, and Kurt Ochsner join Weinstein on stage throughout the entire show, each singing and playing multiple instruments including piano, drums, fiddle, mandolin, acoustic and electric guitars, and electric bass. The rich instrumentation in the small space of Vintage’s Bond Trimble Theater creates an exciting environment for the audience – a couple next to me remarked at intermission that if the show were in a bar, the band would have had the whole audience on the dancefloor!

Although none of the musicians are directly named as a character in the show, and each trades off singing as Cash, Cowhick and Anderson most recognizably play the man himself. Cowhick, with his hair slicked-back and mouth pulled in a recognizable snarl, channels the passion, intensity and, in more poignant moments, uncertainty of a young Johnny Cash.  While Anderson, himself a touring musician with 40-years’ experience on the road, effortlessly channels the world weariness of the man in his older years.  Importantly, each actor’s performance avoids falling into impersonation; their performances acted more as a touchstone for the audience to return to as the production progress.

Duran, the sole woman appearing on stage, brings a life and vitality to the production both in her numbers as June Carter Cash and in her interpretations of Cash’s own music.  Her “I’ve Been Everywhere” is quite frankly a marvel of vocal stamina.  The combination of her musical talent, infectious smile and welcoming stage presence was truly worth the price of admission.  

The set design is sparse, a rough barn-like structure dominates the center of the stage, acting mostly as a rack for various guitars and other musical instruments, and similarly the lighting design is serviceable, although not inspired.  Costuming was coordinated, but unfortunately the modern cut of the men’s clothes diluted any period the costume designer was trying to evoke (nothing about Johnny Cash says “relaxed fit jeans”), with the noted exception of Duran’s dresses which had nice 50’s silhouette.  

A couple things pulled me out of the production.  Most notably the lack of microphones for the singers proved problematic when dealing with amplified instruments.  In particular Cowhick’s vocals were often lost in his solos accompanied by anything more than an acoustic guitar.  Also, it seemed a couple of comedic bits were added to the script which didn’t seem in harmony with the rest of the production, especially the opening of the 2nd act where the music director plays each musician’s instrument came off as hammy, and the mugging didn’t read true to the rest of the show.

In total though, RING OF FIRE is an exciting introduction to the life and music of Johnny Cash.  At a lean, barely 80-minute running time it is exceptionally well suited summer fare for the Vintage, and a wonderful opportunity to see some of Denver’s finer musicians sink their teeth into an American legend.  

RING OF FIRE plays weekends June 23 – August 6th (now playing through August 13!th) at the Vintage Theater, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, CO 80010.  Tickets are available online at www.vintagetheatre.com or by calling the box office at (303) 856-7830.

PHOTO CREDIT:  RDG Photography

 

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