Hard-driving ‘Ring of Fire’ burns brightly on Weston stage

Photo by Hubert Hubert Scheibl

By Bob Behr
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Weston Playhouse’s latest offering is a musical roller-coaster, a rollicking, hard-driving and soulful portrait of country music icon Johnny Cash.

Adapted from the Broadway production conceived by William Meade and created by Richard Maltby Jr., Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash is a unique animal. It’s wall-to-wall singing, hardly a line of dialogue to be found. In fact, more than two dozen songs are joyously crammed into this 90-minute production.

And, Ring of Fire is wall-to-wall energy, a red-hot ensemble piece featuring six actor-singer-musicians on stage from the start of the show until its end. Every one of them sings, dances and plays multiple instruments, 18 instruments all told. When it’s time for a quiet solo, the other cast members step back – but soon they’re leaping forward and we’re roaring along with them to the tune of favorites such as “Jackson,” “I Walk the Line,” “Going to Memphis,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” – and, of course, “Ring of Fire.”

The cast – Jacob Brandt, Seth Eliser, Michael Hicks, Megumi Nakamura, Dorothy Stanley and Lawrence Tobias – represent family members in Cash’s youth and band members in his later years. And while Ring of Fire is presented in a big tent under a big Vermont sky, it’s got an intimate one-for-all-and-all-for-one feel to it. The opening songs, depicting Cash’s childhood and early days in the music business, have a homey, 1930s vibe, as if the actors are singing to themselves on the front porch of a rundown house. Later scenes are clearly meant to replicate theater stages on the road or at the Grand Ole Opry.

Photo by Hubert Scheibl

This is a straight-ahead musical, one that is immensely entertaining and at times downright funny, but there’s something serious and thought-provoking going on here too. The songs chosen — and the order in which they’re presented — reflect the highs and lows of Cash’s life – his marriages, his battles with alcohol and drugs, the thrill and the toll of living on the road.

Director Susanna Gellert has elicited nuanced performances from her cast. And, interestingly, it’s not just the gutsy, raw songs Cash wrote but other writers’ songs too – songs Cash helped make famous – that contribute to these pitch-perfect performances. Seth Eliser as young Cash and Megumi Nakamura as young June Carter Cash make Tim Hardin’s love song “If I Were a Carpenter” sound as if it were written expressly for Cash and Carter. Two Kris Kristofferson masterpieces – “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Why Me Lord” – are sung by Seth Eliser and Michael Hicks, respectively; both performances are emotional and hard-hitting, and seal our connection with Cash as a man who had flaws and experienced great pain.

Other standout moments: a sweet, sad rendition of “Waiting on the Far Side of the Banks of Jordan” delivered by Dorothy Stanley and Lawrence Tobias; Megumi Nakamura’s heart-rending “I Still Miss Someone;” and, Seth Eliser’s over-the-top, energetic “Cry! Cry! Cry!” one of Cash’s first big hits.

Photo by Andy Butterfield

But it’s Lawrence Tobias, playing Johnny Cash as an older man, who provides the ballast for this high-flying show. Tobias makes the wise decision not to imitate Cash’s unique voice and mannerisms; his own version of Cash is solid and believeable. And when he steps up to the mic for “Man in Black” with its powerful, angry message about injustice, he commands every inch of the big tent.

These talented performers are ably supported by an equally capable behind-the-scenes creative team. Spot on are Felicity Stiverson’s choreography, Scott Zielinski’s set and lighting design and Amanda Gladu’s costumes.

There were difficulties with the stage microphones during at least one performance of opening weekend; it surely has been corrected by now. Despite that, Ring of Fire is a feast for our ears with expert sound design by Joanna Lynne Staub, music direction by Michael Hicks and music coordination by Jeremy Yaddaw.

Ring of Fire plays under the tent at Walker Farm, 703 Main St., Weston, through Sunday, Sept. 5. Matinees at 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Evening performances at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays. Adult tickets range from $50 to $74.

Discounts available for students, veterans and Vermont residents. Ring of Fire is currently sold out, but the box office is maintaining a wait list and can be reached at 802-824-5288.

Please note: Audience seating has been reduced to maintain safe physical distance. Singles, pairs or groups are safely distanced from other individuals not in their party.

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