By Pat Robbenolt
“O Johnny, why do people misunderstand you? Oh, yeah, because you’re so complex.” Someone who, like me, was listening to the songs of Johnny Cash wrote those words.
The cast of Ring of Fire includes Anna Baker, Daniel Black, John Dobbratz, Britt Hancock, Lauren Marshall, Leila Nelson and Austin Price. These are actors we have seen in many and varied shows. Kellye Cash, the niece of Johnny Cash and daughter of his brother, Roy Cash Jr., joins the cast to bring a sense of family to the show. She also brings with her the Martin D-28 Dreadnought Guitar that Johnny Cash himself played from 1974 to 1981. We hear its unique sound as Black plays it on "Ring of Fire" and Price plays it on "Folsom Prison Blues." Dobbratz has the chance to play it as he and Hancock sing "Cry, Cry,Cry." What a treat for us to hear that instrument in their hands!
Bryce McDonald and Black have directed this unique show. Ron Murphy on piano, Drew Robbins playing guitar, Tony Greco on the bass and Chet Hayes with the drums are the unseen orchestra that is essential in underscoring the singing on the stage of the Adventure Theater. On stage, Marshall begins the second act with her haunting violin. Black, Dobbratz, Hancock and Price trade off guitars, mandolin, harmonica and bass as they accompany their voices. Nelson has designed choreography requiring both the skill and agility of the cast as they use song and movement to portray the unique life of Johnny Cash.
It was William Meade who conceived the idea of a production focusing on the life and music of Johnny Cash. Richard Maltby Jr. used that idea to create the production, which Meade originally produced on Broadway.
Cash recorded more than 1,500 songs. Thirty-three of those songs are a part of Ring of Fire at the Playhouse. He won 15 Grammy Awards: the Living Legend Award in 1991, the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999 and the Best Country Male Vocal in 2003. Cash was the only living artist inducted into all three major music halls of fame: Rock and Roll, Country Music and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. This feat is astounding when one considers the fact that Johnny Cash was born in Arkansas in 1932, one of seven children in a poverty-stricken family. The full company tells us he was a country boy.
On our way to the Playhouse, my companion and I speculated as to which of the Playhouse actors would play Cash. None of them does. Each and every one of them plays the Man in Black. No one on stage had the magnificent deep voice. Instead, Hancock, Black, Dobbratz and Price each bring the timbre of his own particular voice. But wait, the women, too, impersonate Cash.
When Black and the company sing "A Boy Named Sue," they sing of the neglect of a father whose only legacy was a rare guarantee: “My daddy left home when I was three. Meanest thing he did was to name me Sue. I grew up tough and I grew up mean. Later I heard him say, 'Son, the world is tough, I knew you’d have to be mean to grow up with a name like Sue.'" Growing up, young Johnny soaked up the music that pervaded the Cash household, from the hymns and folk songs of his mother to the work songs of the fields and railroad yards.
Hancock sings of the lack of education in the life of Cash, telling us he got “Straight A’s in Love.” We know Cash struggles with substance abuse. We are reminded of his prison time, limited though it was, as Price sings "Folsom Prison Blues." That experience broadened the concern for and affirmation of the underdog that was so much a part of Cash. Hancock sings of the "Man in Black," reminding us Cash wore black in support of those imprisoned by poverty, by incarceration, by health, by loss, by the horrors of war, by death itself. “Up front there ought to be a man in black ‘til things are brighter. I’m the Man in Black.” The cast dons black to underscore the message.
Black sings with Nelson, “The taste of love is sweet when hearts like ours meet. I fell into a burning ring of fire. I went down, down and the flames went higher. It burns, burns, burns, the Ring of Fire.”
The presence of Kellye Cash, her professionalism, her voice, her sense of being a part of this unique family, brings depth to the production. She made us feel that the circle can indeed be unbroken, if we reach for one another’s hand. Johnny Cash constantly queried, “What good can ever come out of war?” She sings with a plaintive sense of longing and of hope, as the opportunity of the Grand Ole Opry opens for Johnny.
June Carter Cash was clearly the one for whom Cash sang, "I Walk the Line." The full company reminds us of the words: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. Because you’re mine, I walk the line. I keep you on my mind both day and night. I walk the line.” I found it moving to hear the full company sing.
At his death, and still today, Johnny Cash is revered as one of the greatest popular musicians of his time. YouTube is full of opportunities to listen to his music. I would encourage you to take the time to listen, to deepen your understanding, your memory of this creative and complex man. I am often accused of always being over-enthusiastic about the productions at the Cumberland County Playhouse. This is no exception. However, for me, and for many others in the audience, understanding the words of the songs was often not possible. Plaudits go to Dobbratz and Baker for their efforts to enunciate. The music is fine, beautifully played. The voices blend beautifully. The acting is superb. The choreography brings vitality to the whole production. Take time to listen, on whatever device you have, to the words penned by this man who remains an American treasure. They spoke to my heart and soul. Perhaps they will to yours as well.
Ring of Fire can be experienced in the Adventure Theater until Oct. 19. Order your tickets, journey with the cast through the remarkable life and music of Johnny Cash. Even if you feel "I’ve Been Everywhere," this is a journey well worth taking.