By Judith Cookis Rubens
Opening its sixth season, Farmers Alley Theatre continues a tradition of celebratory musical tributes to great artists. Past seasons have honored Patsy Cline and Frank Sinatra. This year, it’s a nod to the Man in Black, country music legend Johnny Cash.
Between his brooding persona, poor childhood, loves, addictions and personal contradictions, there’s plenty of material. Sadly, creator Richard Maltby Jr.’s (“Ain’t Misbehavin'”) version sanitizes some of the heartache. With scant dialogue, we barely skim the surface of his poor childhood, working alongside his large family in the Arkansas cotton fields, or his love story with June Carter. His drug addiction and fascination with prison life are mentioned but not explored.
His music (30-plus songs) is charged with telling the whole story, conjuring up the spirit and presence of Cash while his photos and images of Americana are projected behind the musicians/actors. At the show’s best, its six performers (many local country/rock names) blend energetically for some lighter moments (“Five Feet High and Rising” and “Daddy Sang Bass”).
But as a whole, the evening feels disjointed, almost as if the performers, under Sandra Bremer’s direction and choreography, can’t quite figure out how to meld their ample, individual talents to evoke Cash. The result is a show that pivots back and forth between brooding grittiness, to wildly overdone humor, to softer, more spiritual leanings.
A strong five-piece band, led by musical director/keyboardist Marie Kerstetter, never wavers though, giving its all to the rockabilly sound.
New York actor Chad Bradford comes closest to accessing Cash’s deep sound, and his theatrical take on “A Boy Named Sue” is a definite highlight. His country sound and bass range anchor several numbers.
Rock musician Jim Cummings confidently takes on other classics, including a rockin’ rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues,” though he only truly comes alive in the patriotic story-song “Ragged Old Flag.”
NY Equity actor Ben Williams evokes a young Cash in looks, but he goes for a broader comedic interpretation, which doesn’t always connect. Mugging it up with crazy antics through “Delia’s Gone,” a darkly humorous murder ballad, Williams tries too hard instead of letting the dark lyrics bring the muffled laughs.
The three female performers get plenty of stage time, too, with local country singer Shelagh Brown making an enchanting June Carter Cash. Her part in “Jackson,” June’s famous duet with Cash, is quite delightful. Local musician/actress Cori Somers steps in to fill the sixth performer spot, but it’s her dynamic fiddle playing that’s most memorable. Julie Cook Brown adds a motherly presence and sound vocals.
While it’s fun to see keyboardist Kerstetter and crew up on stage (typically at Farmers Alley, the band or orchestra is hidden behind the set), it makes things a little crowded on a spare, two-tiered stage as performers enter and exit around the musicians.
When choreography, music and character blend well, as in the show-closer, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” each performer shows off his/her talent, while still honoring Cash’s spirit. Unfortunately for “Ring of Fire,” this doesn’t happen often enough.
‘Ring of Fire’
Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday & 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 12. $31-33. 269-343-2727. http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com