Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Ring of Fire uses a fairly straightforward timeline, beginning with an older Cash looking back at his past, to lay out the highlights in his life. It shows how the horrible event in 1944 when Johnny's older brother Jack was tragically injured by a saw at the mill where he worked affected Johnny, touches on growing up in the depression, includes Cash's courtship with June Carter, and ends with Cash's death in 2003.
Creator Richard Maltby Jr. weaves together two dozen songs written by or associated with Cash and his family, with many of the lyrics effectively depicting the struggles he encountered as well as mirroring key moments in his life. While the version of the show Phoenix Theatre is presenting has cut out some of the details in Cash's life and has minimal narration, it still serves as a fitting tribute to this beloved individual.
In the last two seasons, Phoenix Theatre presented another jukebox musical that features Cash and some of his music, Million Dollar Quartet, and two of that show's cast members are featured in this production: Gregg Hammer portrayed Cash in that show and Austin Case played bass and a supporting character. For this production, Hammer serves as the narrator and the older version of Cash. His excellent, deep and rich singing voice and superb guitar playing skills provide a fitting tribute to Cash. Case's agility in moving the large bass around with ease, even standing on its side at one time, along with his superior musical abilities are matched with the playfulness he brings to the part.
Michelle Chin has been featured or co-starred in dozens of Phoenix Theatre shows and at other theatres around town, and her sweet nature and earthy tones work well to depict both the younger June Carter as well as the more mature woman she later becomes having to deal with some of Johnny's demons. Chin is a multi-talented musician who plays various instruments, and for this show her percussion skills are used to wonderful effect. Alex Crossland has appeared in several previous Phoenix Theatre shows in the ensemble and supporting roles, but here he is given the chance to show off not only his beautiful singing voice but his wonderful guitar abilities as the younger version of Cash. Cassie Chilton has also appeared in several Phoenix Theatre shows and also in musicals across the Valley and, as with the rest of the cast, this show allows the audience to hear her excellent violin playing as well as her attractive singing voice.
There are many highlights in the show, including Chin and Crossland's playful versions of three back to back hits"If I Were a Carpenter," "Ring of Fire," and "Jackson"that depict the courtship of Johnny and June. "I've Been Everywhere" is a joyful, upbeat song about playing dozens of cities when traveling, while Chilton's delivery of "I Still Miss Someone," supported by Crossland, is infused with emotion. Hammer clearly has a lot of experience with Cash and his music and he has portrayed him in multiple productions of Million Dollar Quartet; the connection he brings to the man and his music are felt in both his introspective narration and the many songs he sings.
Director Scott Weinstein keeps the pace of the show brisk while allowing the few serious moments in the show to resonate. He also incorporates excellent socially distanced musical staging, as per Actors' Equity guidelines, that never feels out of place or unnatural. Alan Plado's music direction ensures the quintet creates some glorious harmonies. Dallas Nichols' video designs deliver a series of archival photos and video images projected on the large screen at the back of the stage that provide a wonderful connection to Cash's legacy and the lyrics of the songs. The lighting design by Kristen Peterson is playful and vibrant, and Dave Temby'a sound design ensures that all of the lyrics and notes are clear and crisp.
Phoenix Theatre Company's production of Ring of Fire features exceptional performers and gorgeous versions of many classic country and folk tunes. While the musical may not dive as deep into Cash's history as other jukebox musicals that focus on a famous performer, it is a highly entertaining tribute to the man in black and the fascinating life and the hardships he faced.
The Phoenix Theatre Company's outdoor venue provides socially distanced seating and is located in the large courtyard of the Central United Methodist Church, which is located directly on the north side of Phoenix Theatre's parking lot.
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash runs through April 4, 2021, at The Phoenix Theatre Company's outdoor stage at Central United Methodist Church, on the north side of the Phoenix Theatre's parking lot, 100 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling 602-254-2151.
Director/Musical Staging: Scott Weinstein
* Courtesy of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the US