Sunday, January 24, 2016

Ring of Fire at Centerstage

It Sizzles, but Doesn't Quite Burn

by Leslie Youngblood

   L to R: Cayman Ilika, Jared Michael Brown                    photos by: Michelle Smith Lewis

Greetings, faithful readers of Dresdner's Theatre Reviews. As Michael is performing in a concurrent production, I was tasked with seeing Ring of Fire at Centerstage. Well, not so much “tasked” as I begged him to let me have his tickets, as I am a huge fan of Cayman Ilika. Ergo, I will try to emulate Michael's voice to the best of my ability, but please send any flowers or hate mail to me.

Ring of Fire, a toe-tapping jukebox musical, is the quasi-biographical story of Johnny Cash. Instead of using dialogue to focus on Cash's life, Richard Maltby, Jr. created a piece that lets the music tell the tale of the man in black. Short monologues weave together classic songs detailing Cash's childhood, rise to fame, romance with June Carter, and drug habit. Orchestrations by Steven Bishop and Jeff Lisenby turn one man's solo work into a harmonious feast for the ears. It's easy to follow if you are a true Johnny Cash aficionado, but a bit muddled if you are just starting to “Walk the Line”.

    L to R: Tom Stewart, Jack Dearth, Jared Michael Brown, Sean Tomerlin

The multi-talented six person cast (slash band!) is helmed by Gregory Award nominees Cayman Ilika and Jared Michael Brown. Brown, while youthful and lacking a certain gruffness, demands the audience's attention as the lead on most of Cash's songs. His range, charisma, and energy are the glue that holds the show together. Ilika, the only woman, doesn't shy away from the spotlight; her June Carter is ready to spar with the best of them. While her vocals soar on every number, the true testament to her musicianship are the diction and phrasing she uses in crowd favorite “I've Been Everywhere”. Harmonies and a handful of solos were relegated to the band: Sean Tomerlin on bass, Zack Summers on drums, Tom Stewart on acoustic guitar, and Jack Dearth on electric guitar. A nod to the original production, these gentlemen were required to be triple threats – singing and acting while playing an instrument. While all could handle two of the tasks presented, a true trifecta was not achieved.

The high energy numbers were the most enjoyable. One felt they were watching old friends doing what they loved most; almost an intimate peek into a garage band rehearsal. However, the rehearsal element never truly left the production. With flubbed lyrics, out of tune instruments, and missed cues, the cast persevered, but didn't bring the level of polish associated with a professional production. Proof that opening night jitters can happen no matter how seasoned you are.

   L to R: Tom Stewart, Jack Dearth, Jared Michael Brown, Cayman Ilika 

Ring of Fire presents a directorial challenge. There isn't much of a script and Cash's music doesn't lend itself to large production numbers. Enter Amy Johnson, choreographer turned director. She takes what could be a stagnant, park-and-bark product, and jazzes it up with guitar-wielding movement that utilizes the entire stage and interactive set, designed by Richard Lorig. Johnson worked in tandem with music director Jeff Bell, making sure that any movement didn't overshadow the lyrics and harmonies. Costumes by Rachel Wilkie helped set the scene and add pops of color to a monochromatic background.

In short, come for the crooning, not a history lesson, and be prepared to have as much fun as the cast is at any given moment.

Ring of Fire
Jan 23 to Feb 14, 2016

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