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Review: THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY AND JUNE at La Jolla Playhouse

Playing through July 7th

By: Jun. 12, 2024
Review: THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY AND JUNE at La Jolla Playhouse  Image
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The best way to open this review on the world premiere musical “The Ballad of Johnny and June” now playing at the La Jolla Playhouse through July 7th, is the same way the show starts - with the fantastic music.  The instrumental prologue kicks off the show with gorgeous strings, energetic drums, and bright brass horns, as they build to the crescendo that is the appearance of Johnny Cash (Christopher Ryan Grant) and June Carter (Patti Murin).

Written by Robert Cary and Des McAnuff and with input from their son John Carter Cash, the musical strives to look beyond the fairytale oft told of the country royal couple and show a more rounded version of the couple’s ups and downs throughout their relationship. 

Review: THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY AND JUNE at La Jolla Playhouse  Image

The character John Carter Cash (Van Hughes) not only performs music while narrating but also presents some grounded perspective with asides to the audience when situations differ befitting each teller’s personality; Johnny’s being more theatrical, and June’s being more comedic.

The first act follows their separate paths in country music and marriages to other people before their friendship turns into romance.  Cash is married to his first wife Vivian (Gabriella Joy) who knows her husband too well, and suffers as he fails to “Walk The Line” as promised in the hit song he wrote for her.

Carter and Cash cross paths on the touring circuit, and she proves helpful to his bandmates in trying to focus Johnny on the music as he starts to succumb to his addictions. From friendship, they eventually give in to their irresistible pull toward each other and it blossoms into a 47-year-long relationship.

Review: THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY AND JUNE at La Jolla Playhouse  Image

Grant is a strong performer, with the physicality and most importantly,  Cash’s calm and deep bass/baritone voice. He brings a gravity to the role that is well matched by Murin’s no less serious, but more sunny and comedic June.  Murin is charming and playful while still having emotional depth as June struggles to help Johnny through his troubles.

Hughes as John Carter is warm and likable, and Joy’s Vivian is touching as a woman torn between her marriage to a man who is never there and honoring her marriage vows.

The ensemble is small but mighty, with everyone performing multiple roles and singing vocal harmonies all the while playing instruments.  The ensemble includes Maddie Shea Baldwin, Paula Leggett Chase, Drew Wildman Foster, Bart Shatto, Correy West, and understudies Summer Broyhill, Michael Louis Cusimano, Cody Ingram, and Bailey Day Sonner.

Review: THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY AND JUNE at La Jolla Playhouse  Image

As the show explores their story it all works because it is packed full of their fantastic music throughout.  The country/rockabilly/folk music is arranged and orchestrated by music supervisor Ron Melrose and played by a standout band.  Thanks to the band and the sound design by Peter Fitzgerald the music is beautifully full and layered. 

The scenic design by Robert Brill has an open and airy feel of a barn, with enough controlled clutter to allow performers to quickly make scene changes ranging from outside by a river, a hotel room, and to a television set without ever losing the rustic feel.  It works beautifully with the lighting design by Amanda Zieve, which alternately creates softer moments or more sharply drawn moments in the spotlight, and at times focuses the audience on a character that isn’t there.  Projections by Sean Nieuwenhuis give depth to an in-studio audience, and add a fun element in the names of towns in the song “I’ve Been Everywhere.”

Review: THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY AND JUNE at La Jolla Playhouse  Image

Costumes by Sarafina Bush are lovely, capturing the iconic looks of the performers, time, and genre while allowing for quick character changes.  They are supported by the wigs designed by Alberto “Albee” Alvarado.   

Directed by McAnuff, the musical is a jukebox musical that uses the music in a way that makes you almost forget that only one song “The Ballad of Johnny and June” was written for this show. The show is most compelling when diving into the drama, and the placement of the music further elevates these moments especially in “Hurt” in the second act.

The first act has plenty of energy and lighthearted moments, even as the darker elements start to manifest. It is lovely to see this show spotlight the Carter family as June came from an established country music lineage.  Something that often gets brushed aside in favor of letting Johnny take a more central musical role in other versions of their life story.  The second act gets darker as they struggle with drugs, fame, and regret and the story is more interesting because of these complexities.

The show could use some additional editing for both time and clarity.  The first act feels long, and there is a second-act moment with June and John Carter about addiction that is briefly discussed and never resolved, so why add it?  (I searched afterward to see how/if it resolved).  While love and marriage are some core tenets of the story, John Carter’s character's contemplation of his proposal felt unnecessary. 

You don’t need to be a country music fan to enjoy the performances and the music of the show, and their life and love are enough to inspire a song of their own in “The Ballad of Johnny and June.”

How To Get Tickets

 “The Ballad of Johnny and June” is at the La Jolla Playhouse through July 7th.  For ticket and showtime information go to www.lajollaplayhouse.org 


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rich Soublet II




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