Review: Bringing the Legend to Life: MSMT/Portland Stage Present RING OF FIRE

Bringing the Legend to Life: MSMT/Portland Stage Present RING OF FIRE

By: Aug. 07, 2021

Review: Bringing the Legend to Life: MSMT/Portland Stage Present RING OF FIRE

In a career that spanned more than half a century and with songs and sound that remain as fresh and relevant as ever today, Johnny Cash is an icon of American music, whose life, with its roller coaster of highs and lows and its road to ruin and redemption, inspires almost as much fascination as his art. In a musically brilliant and dramatically compelling production of Richard Maltby's biographical musical, RING OF FIRE, Maine State Music Theatre and Portland Stage bring the legend of the Man in Black to life in his unforgettable melodies and moments of darkness and triumph.

Originally produced on Broadway in 2006, this five-character version adapted by Maltby is a tightly scripted, often understated, but always gripping narrative journey through the life and artistic evolution of Johnny Cash. Perhaps its greatest strength as a book is the way it judiciously selects the true watershed moments in Cash's tumultuous life to frame the story and surround s the singer with the core people in his life - his family, his wife, June Carter Cash, and a few musician friends. RING OF FIRE wisely lets Cash's music tell the story, using minimal dialogue and spoken narrative to make the seamless transitions. But since this is a story filled with high drama, there is ample emotion to carry the viewer along and invest him/her in the story.

Ben Hope and Katie Barton (with Scott Moreau as Associate Director) co-direct with sure hands, creating a fluid pace and flawless transitions through time and character changes. Eric Anthony serves as the accomplished Music Director for the dazzlingly accomplished five actor-musicians who play an amazing array of instruments with virtuoso ease and supply the strong-voiced vocals that perfectly capture the unique Cash sound.

Portraying Johnny Cash in various stage and concert incarnations for more than fifteen years, actor-singer-musician Scott Moreau has also become a legend. Not only has he trained his beautiful, rich, velvety voice to channel the deep, chocolately Cash sound, but he is able to project Cash's physicality and mannerisms, and - more importantly - he appears able to inhabit his psyche. Perhaps, it is this ability to project from a deep inner connection Cash's emotions and thoughts - not only in the songs, but in the silent and spoken moments of the drama. Each vocal is a gem, but highlights of Moreau's performance include: his first hit "Hey, Porter," the anguished "Sunday Morning Coming Down," a spirited "Man in Black" and a poignant "I Still Miss Someone."

Review: Bringing the Legend to Life: MSMT/Portland Stage Present RING OF FIRE Moreau plays the guitar with style, re-creating Cash's way of fingering and holding the instrument . The four-other actor-musicians, Ben Hope, Morgan Morse, Elizabeth Nestlerode, and Katie Barton demonstrate an extraordinary versatility on a range of instruments from electric guitar, bass and to drums and percussion. The quartet proves also to be fine actors, creating a number of significant figures and events in Cash's life. Barton, Hope, and Morse vividly portray Cash's parents and brother in the years of the Great Depression in such songs as the soulful "Far Side Banks of Jordan" and the sweetly comic "While I've Got It On My Mind." And then they transition in the second act to providing the stellar band backup for Cash, while Nestlerode incarnates a perky, adoring, warm and radiant June Carter Cash.

The attractive production perfectly suits the intimate Portland Stage space. Scenic Designer Ben Hope and Scenic Adapter Anita Stewart's set uses the natural brick back wall of the theatre and stairs and levels effectively and artfully arranges the musical instruments on stage in pleasing visual composition. Complementing the neutrals of the stage design, Jamie Grant's lighting adds an almost sepia touch of memory. Katie Barton provides the attractive period costumes, while Christopher Sutton achieves an excellent soundscape. Stage Manager Myles C. Hatch anchor the production expertly.

RING OF FIRE is just one of many theatrical attempts to tell Cash's story. But there is something about this superbly realized production - the cast, the music, the visuals - that makes the memory of a legend become a living truth.

Photos courtesy of MSMT/Portland Stage, Mical Huston, photographer

RING OF FIRE, a co-production of MSMT/Portland Stage, runs from August 3 - August 29, 2021 at Portland Stage, 25 Forest Ave., Portland, ME Information at 207- 774-0465 or 207-725-8769


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