BWW Review: RING OF FIRE at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre
In 2006, Ring of Fire, conceived by William Meade and created by Richard Maltby, Jr. appeared for the first time on Broadway. Its Broadway run was short-lived, but a revised version of it has found popularity in the theatre world, particularly in an intimate setting where the audience can find themselves swept up in the story told by Cash's music. This musical presents the audience with over 30 of Johnny Cash's songs including favorites such as Ring of Fire and I Walk the Line. What is perhaps most notable about this musical is that there are no characters per se-everyone both is and is not Johnny Cash. The audience is invited to recognize their own life experiences in the show through small snapshots of Cash's life and, most importantly, through his music, which explores the range of human experience including love, loss, addiction, family, and faith.
Ring of Fire blazes onto the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre stage under the direction of Curt Wollan. The ten-person cast, which includes music director JP Meyer, delivers a high-energy show that keeps the audience members tapping their feet and clapping along. One of the most impressive aspects of this performance is the versatility of the cast, who not only sing and act but also play an amazing variety of instruments-from bass and guitar to harmonica and trumpet to spoons and washboard. It is not an easy task to move and interact with one another effectively while singing and playing instruments, but the cast at Dutch Apple does an admirable job.
The opening numbers Country Boy and Straight A's in Love start the show off just right. Chet Wollan's Country Boy is endearing, as he and the rest of the cast lead the audience into Cash's early life. The following dialog, which is basically a description of Cash's family line and his childhood, is not the most interesting part of the script (unless you are a history fan). However, the cast kept it engaging by making it seem like a conversation rather than a history lesson.
One of the best performances in the first act was Five Feet High and Rising. The combination of brilliant staging and lighting drew the audience in, really making them believe that the family was watching their land flood. Of particular note in this song is Steven E. Sitzman who portrays a young boy in the song. For the duration of the song the audience forgets that he is an adult, as he looks young, scared, and genuinely concerned about the level of the water rising, while he asks, "how high is the water, Papa?" When he almost loses his balance, putting him in danger of falling into the flood waters, the mothers in the audience feel compelled to reach out to steady him.
Cash's "Boyhood Years" are rounded out with the story of his brother Jack's death. While Far Side Banks of Jordan was delivered beautifully by Allison Fund, the pacing in this scene-from the dialog through the song-seemed rushed. This has the potential to be one of the most tender, heart-wrenching parts of the show, but the level of emotion expected was lacking. The actors did not seem to connect on an emotional level, perhaps because of the pacing.
Always an audience favorite, Daddy Sang Bass brings the entire cast together, highlighting their great harmonies as well as their prowess with their instruments. While the deep bass vocals may not be quite consistent, seeing the string bass with bassist Justin Droegemueller featured on the platform was definitely a highlight of this song.
The second half of Act I takes the audience on a journey through Cash's early career, experience at the Grand Ole Opry, and first impressions of June Carter. Steven Sitzman and Chet Wollan are hysterical as they attempt to convince Mr. Phillips of Sun Records to put them on the radio, and Tim Drake's portrayal of Mr. Phillips is entertaining. Allison Fund and Tim Drake's If I Were a Carpenter is particularly well-acted, giving the audience a glimpse into the relationship between Johnny and June. While Ring of Fire is a fantastic follow-up to If I Were a Carpenter, the final song of the act, Jackson, was difficult to hear and understand the words over the volume of the instruments (which is unfortunate for such a high-energy and humorous song).
One of the best parts of the entire production is the introduction to Act II where violinist Emily Woods is featured. She captures the audience's attention immediately with her clear strong voice and with her amazing fiddle action. Soon the entire cast takes the stage again in I've Been Everywhere, which never fails to wow audiences as the song moves faster and faster through lists of town after town.
My favorite selection of songs in this particular production were the pieces dealing with the dark times in Cash's life. Going to Memphis was brilliantly choreographed, with the men moving and singing in perfect harmony. Their movements, facial expressions, and lighting combined to create just the right atmosphere for this prison song. In Cocaine Blues, Chet Wollan, Steven Sitzman, Tim Drake, and Jonah Martin show off their varied talents, with Jonah taking his turn at the string bass, astonishing the audience as he plays it like a guitar held on his lap. This song gave the men a chance to really use their interactions with one another and with their instruments in creative ways, and they did not disappoint. Sadly, while the acting in Orleans Parish Prison was wonderful, evoking the sense of desperation one might feel as a loved one is locked up in prison, it was often difficult to hear the vocals over the instruments.
As the music moves out of the dark times into themes of redemption and celebration, Candice Lively's All Over Again is utterly angelic, and Walk the Line is another moment where the interactions between the cast members really shine. There are many notable moments in Act II, but it would take several pages to mention all of them, so come on out to Dutch Apple to see it for yourself.
While some of the songs were missing that great low bass vocal for which Cash was so well known, the tight harmonies, blend of strong vocals and skilled instrumentals, and overall energy of the cast makes up for it. For an audience looking for a foot-stomping, hand-clapping good time, Ring of Fire at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre is just the ticket.
Catch Ring of Fire at Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre through March 17. Visit www.dutchapple.com to purchase your tickets today!