The story of Johnny Cash is multifaceted in its impact and inspiration. He represents a little bit of every American through his bass-baritone voice, which during his life spoke volumes about love, loss, addiction, faith, underdogs, and finding courage and strength to rise above the ashes. From his early life as a farm boy in Arkansas to an Air Force serviceman to a door-to-door appliance salesman, Cash absorbed life in a deep way, embraced the heartache and solitude of it, and molded it into what would be his music-industry persona, The Man in Black. Two failed marriages and a drug addiction, along with compiled guilt felt over the loss of his brother Jack, all made up harrowing trials and tribulations apparent in his poetic songwriting and music-making.
As a crossover artist through many genres, Cash is one of the few to be inducted into multiple halls of fame: gospel, rock ‘n’ roll and country—despite his wherewithall to fight against the industry norm and earn the title “outlaw” to no avail. In the 2006 jukebox musical, “Ring of Fire,” much of Cash’s story is told, if not abstractly, through the tales of four couples that represent various stages of his life. More importantly, like his music, the story is representational of the essence and spirit of America. It’s not so much a biography of Cash, as seen in the 2005 hit “Walk the Line,” which starred Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. There is no one person onstage in “Ring of Fire” playing Johnny Cash.
“The cast is ‘everyman,’ as Cash’s music was for every man,” explains Lance Howell, who is best known on Wilmington’s scene as a theatrical designer and who played Ebenezer Scrooge during their December run of “A Christmas Carol.” Howell will direct the Thalian Association debut, which opens this Thursday.
“Growing up religious and on a farm, we weren’t allowed (by the women of our family) to listen to Johnny Cash,” Howell tells, “so my father and grandfather would listen to it whenever we went fishing or driving to the tobacco fields.”
Many poignant moments from the musicians past thread a story that is told through family members involved, including Cash’s second wife, June Carter Cash. “But they aren’t named characters,” Howell continues. “Actually, all the cast members are referred to by their real names in the program and onstage.”
Mike Maykish, Beth Corvino, Beth Swindell, Charlie Robertson, Charles Patton, and Rasa Love are a few among 11 people onstage. They are channeling the simplicity, vulnerability and relatability of this musician to get to the core of his iconoclastic legacy.
“He didn’t really hide his thoughts and feelings in metaphors,” Maykish says. “He put his feelings into words and just told the story. I really love the way the ladies sing ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ and Charlie’s take on ‘Ragged Old Flag’ is inspiring.”
Other songs in the show—created by Richard Maltby Jr.—include “Daddy Sang Bass,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and of course, “Folsom Prison Blues” and the title track.
“They’re songs about love and sex and struggle and regret and all the stuff everyone can relate to, even if they don’t admit it,” Corvino says.
“I have definitely been struck by his more solemn moments, especially surrounding the death of his brother Jack,” Swindell notes. “As harsh and sad as this story is, there is such beauty in how human these moments are, and how Cash’s truth connects all of us who have experienced such loss.”
Terry Collins and Rob Colluccio have designed the set to embody the cathedral-like feeling of the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry used to be taped. Cash was temporarily banned from the Opry in 1965 after stomping the stage lights during a performance. Dallas Lefon is in charge of lighting “Ring of Fire,” while Cheryl Kranzinger’s costumes will contain a Western flair. The six-piece band, directed by William “Clay” Whittington, will feature that rumbling sound of guitars, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and drums, as played by the Tennessee Three and heard through Cash’s solo albums.
“I think the beauty of this show, both in design and experience, is having an opportunity to approach a character with the specific intent of not becoming that character,” Patton says. “Doing that in coordination with all these other crazy-talented people is unlike anything I’ve ever done. In theatre you spend so much time trying to make a character your own or to portray a character a certain way; it becomes a muscle memory to simply interact with the other characters people bring to the show. Having to share the responsibility of developing that with the entire cast is simultaneously refreshing, challenging and intimate. We have to bend and stretch without breaking the coherency of Johnny’s story.”
In the end, according to Roberston, it’s more about attracting the authenticity of this man before and after his height of fame. It’s about finding the timelessness of his appeal and humanity.
“My parents listened to Cash. I listen to Cash. My son listens to Cash,” Robertson says. “I can think of no other artist who has accomplished that cowboy hat trick. The genius of this production, this cast and this director is that we aren’t trying to re-create the wheel. It’s entirely about staying true to the music. This is a simple, honest presentation of music that stands on its own—no, not just stands, but jumps up, grabs you, and takes you on an emotional adventure you won’t soon forget.”
Ring of Fire
February 5-15, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 601 Chestnut Street