Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash
Runs until Sunday, Aug. 11
Citadel Theatre, Edmonton
9828 101 A Ave.
Tickets: Call 780-425-1820 or at citadeltheatre.com
There is just one way to describe Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash on the night I reviewed it – thundering applause accompanied by two very long standing ovations.
And did I mention the toe-tapping reverberations and boisterous hand-clapping during songs such as Get Rhythm, Jackson and, of course, the barn-burning Ring of Fire?
Yes, the Citadel Theatre was blazing with love. Country fans, and there is an abundance in the region, are snapping up tickets to this finely crafted jukebox musical that revisits the life of one of North America’s most important songwriters and performers of the 20th century.
Ironically, when creator Richard Maltby Jr. mounted it on Broadway in 2006, it flopped. The biographical movie, Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, was released a year earlier detailing Cash’s gritty, angst-filled life.
It was a powerful portrayal of the contradictory legend and was nominated for five Academy Awards. By contrast, Ring of Fire was viewed as a weaker copy and closed after 57 stage performances.
Not to be deterred, Maltby retooled Ring of Fire into a small-cast, cabaret-style show that focuses on Cash’s music — 32 songs to be exact — woven together by a light chronological narrative.
It touches on five cornerstones of his life: Cash’s early years growing up on an impoverished Alabama cotton farm, his musical influences, his relationship to June Carter, his social justice advocacy for the disenfranchised, and his religious beliefs as viewed through gospel music.
All in all, it’s a wonderful tour into the Man in Black’s material.
Director Tracey Flye and music director Steven Greenfield use a superb cast of six singer-actor-musicians to craft the storyline. Cash’s central role is divided by the ruggedly handsome Jonas Shandel as the older Johnny while Lawrence Libor is the younger version.
Wearing slick-backed hair, a black suit, and with a deep bass voice that resonates with Cash’s spirit, the charismatic Shandel was the production’s lynchpin and he filled out the role perfectly. He even played the guitar with Cash’s unique grip that was part of the star’s showmanship.
Libor, on the other hand, as the younger version with a troubled soul, traumatized by his brother's death, overcomes his grief with a smouldering desire to perform.
Quinn Dooley plays both the loving mother as well as the inspirational June Carter, a woman who stood by her man through raging bouts of alcoholism and drug abuse. In both Dooley is a nimble singer-musician who adds touches of womanly elegance to each song she sings.
It’s delightful to see Julien Arnold extending his range on banjo, guitar and mandolin with roguish delight while Matt Blackie and Daniel Williston as musicians pepper the show with an infectious harmonic blend.
Ring of Fire doesn’t really add anything we didn’t already know about the towering legend. However, Cash’s music was about sinners and wounded souls going through a cycle of sin and redemption. It’s heavy stuff. But when you hear a song like Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog and A Boy Named Sue, you know there’s still something to smile about.
Ring of Fire runs until Sunday, Aug. 11.