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Firing squad

Unlikely voices step up in CdA Summer Theatre’s ‘Ring of Fire’

At the beginning of “Ring of Fire,” opening tonight at the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre, an actor will step forward and utter the iconic line, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

Then the other five actors will step forward and say the same thing – yes, even the three women in the cast.

That’s because all will sing Johnny Cash songs and dramatize different aspects of the Johnny Cash story. They will portray characters important to him – June Carter Cash being the most obvious one – as well as the man himself, in different stages of his life. Laura Sable, for instance, will portray the 10-year-old Johnny Cash (“before his voice changed,” she joked).

Yet not even the men will be doing a flat-out Johnny Cash impersonation. This is no tribute act.

“No one bears responsibility for imitating Johnny Cash,” said director Christian Duhamel.

The six-person cast tells the story of the Man in Black through songs – 40 of them. You’ll hear the familiar Cash hits – “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues, “A Boy Named Sue,” and the title tune. You’ll also hear songs that influenced him.

“We sing a lot of gospel songs that he grew up singing,” said cast member Vickielee Wohlbach.

This is not an easy show to characterize, especially because it has evolved dramatically since its premiere in Buffalo in 2005 and its brief Broadway run in 2006. You might call it a musical revue, a musical biography and a country concert, all mixed into one.

“The audience will really be coming to see a country-western concert with some story and acting thrown in,” said cast member John Patrick Lowrie.

Cash’s songs lend themselves especially well to this kind of approach, because he was a master of the story song. You’ll hear songs about childhood, about family, about hardship, about prison, about love and about loss. You’ll hear “the songs his family might have sung when they were grieving and songs they sang when they recovered from grieving,” Lowrie said.

Duhamel said the show will be staged to portray two different worlds, representing the public and private sides of Johnny Cash.

“One is a contemporary country concert feel, with hot light cues,” Duhamel said. “The other is the interior of his country home.”

The audience will also travel to the Grand Ole Opry – which happens to be where Johnny Cash and June Carter met and fell in love.

An eight-piece band, under the direction of James Ryan, will be on stage in a bandstand. And the instrumentation doesn’t stop there.

“One of the really cool things is that we all play instruments – harmonica, guitar, banjo, autoharp,” said cast member Max Demers. “So all of the actors are playing, on top of what the band is playing.”

The other cast members are CDA Summer Theatre favorites Dane Stokinger and Darcy Wright.

Broadway has never been the natural habitat for country music, and that early version of the show was more “impressionistic” than straight biography. It was revamped for its national tour and has since become an in-demand show at regional theaters. That’s because the music and orchestration “really respect the style of Johnny Cash,” said Lowrie.

Or, to put it another way, it delivers the Cash on the barrelhead.

Reach senior correspondent Jim Kershner at jimkershner@comcast.net.


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