BWW Reviews: RING OF FIRE at CLO Cabaret Weaves Music and Narrative Together
Sitting at my table near the back at the CLO Cabaret, I perused my playbill to see which of the songs in Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash revue-sical currently being performed, I would recognize. I'm a Cash admirer (who isn't?) but no real aficionado, and I was pleased, even surprised, to see how many of the songs I recognized by name. Then, the lights dimmed, and I braced myself to hear a cast member speak the Man In Black's iconic greeting: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." To my surprise and relief, a monologue followed the blackout instead, not from the mouth of a Cash impersonator onstage, but from the famous gravelly voice of the musical icon himself. This set the tone of the evening, and production, perfectly.
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash walks the line, if you'll pardon the easy joke, between revue and book musical. Its short-lived New York production, as conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. and William Meade, had a large cast and band, but used the conceit that each and every person onstage, male and female, WAS in fact Johnny Cash, since Cash was an everyman. The "Small Cast Version" more commonly licensed today has pared down both the company size to five actor-musicians, and the conceit as well, with one actor playing Johnny Cash, one actress playing June Carter Cash, and the others acting as his singing voice, young self, and simple theatrical illustrations of his music and characters.
In this production, as staged by Guy Stroman, Johnny Cash is strictly third person. Jay Hitt, who plays acoustic guitar throughout the production and sings much of Cash's later and more introspective material, may have a more paternal presence in the show, but he is not playing Old Johnny Cash. When he or the rest of the cast speak about Cash's life story, it's always a "he," and not an "I." Only Nicole Stefonek, the sole woman in the cast, breaks this mold, as she seems to embody June Carter Cash more often than not, duetting playfully with Johnny Cash in biographical segments illustrated by various male cast members, or reacting with hurt to the addictions or personal failings Cash's lyrics often illustrated. Stefonek's voice is pure gold, ranging from classic country ballads like "While I've Got It On My Mind" to character comedy in songs like "Flushed." Her musical contribution to the show's acting orchestra is limited to occasional guitar strumming and infrequent percussion, but as the only actor to truly play a character throughout, she carries the heaviest dramatic load of the evening.
The male quartet that makes up the rest of the cast is led vocally by the aforementioned Jay Hitt, whose rugged but light voice suits the mix of country, bluegrass, gospel and rockabilly perfectly. His acoustic guitar finger-picking adds to the band's appeal greatly, as he can play a beautiful, folky guitar ballad in one song and bust out a hot lick in the next. The rest of the cast play multiple instruments, switching off from song to song as their vocal and instrumental needs vary. Jon Rohlf, a recent Point Park graduate, sings pleasantly enough, though his light folksinger's voice is less large and theatrical than Hitt or Stefonek. However, Rohlf truly gets to shine as the musical center of the cast, playing leads and solos on at least half the score. Over the course of the evening, Rohlf deftly shows his talents on guitar, banjo, mandolin, upright bass and harmonica, as well as some percussion. Though Hitt sings the most, and Stefonek plays the only main characteter, it is Rohlf who takes the lead bow, presumably as bandleader. Rohlf also gets the final song of the evening, a solo vocal and guitar performance of Cash's comic monologue in song, "A Girl Named Sue." It's a tour de force for an actor musician.
Joining Rohlf as featured instrumentalists and vocalists are primary bassist Mitch Marois and a primary electric guitarist, normally played by Paul Koudoris but replaced by understudy Santino Tomasetti at my performance. While Marois may lack the bass notes vocally to match the ones his instrument produces, his soulful baritone-tenor works perfectly for the tearjerkers his track usually sings. From the mournful a cappella gospel of "Sweet Bye and Bye" to patriotic recitation "Ragged Old Flag," Marois was a clear audience favorite, and quickly became the emotional center of the show- plus, this boy sure can slap that bass. Tomasetti is also a gifted multi-instrumentalist and singer, handling not only all the leads on electric guitar, but all the high soprano harmonies in traditional men's gospel tradition. I spoke to Tomasetti after the show, and he confirmed that not only he, but the whole male cast, knew more than one track in the show, so that any possible configuration of parts could be assumed in case of emergency. In any traditional show, this would be difficult. In a "John Doyle-esque" staging, where actors are orchestra as well, it is nearly impossible.
The simple scenic design by Tony Ferrieri nicely evokes the American South and Southwest without ever being too minimalistic or too obvious, as Andrew David Ostrowski's lighting bathes the cast in sunlight and shadow. The occasional use of sound effects, especially of Johnny Cash's own recorded voice, grounds the show nicely in its reality, letting us live the music but never allowing us to forget the Man in Black himself, whose presence looms over the entire show. Cash may not appear as a singing, dancing, strumming character in this production, like he did on Broadway, but his legend, his voice and his music still clearly make him the star of the show.