“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
With Southern hospitality, this is how we meet the cast of “Ring of Fire,” the latest production from Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre. Each of the six actors – three men and three women – steps to the microphone to deliver Cash’s signature greeting. From there, it’s a high-energy musical extravaganza and endearing tribute to the country and rock ’n’ roll legend whose music spans genres and generations.
Regarded as more of a musical revue than a standard Broadway production, Robert Maltby Jr. and William Meade’s show uses an onstage band, dramatic narrations and a cast of dynamic vocalists (who can also play instruments) to convey Cash’s life and lyrics. It touches on various aspects of Cash’s life, from his arduous upbringing working in the cotton fields of Arkansas to his ongoing struggles with drug and alcohol addiction as an adult.
Under the direction of Christian Duhamel and musical direction of Jim Ryan, the eight-member orchestra and cast (Max Demers, Dane Stokinger, John Patrick Lowrie, Darcy Wright, Laura Sable and Vickielee Wohlbach), deliver Maltby’s material with exuberance.
Lowrie makes one heck of a banjo picker, and his deep baritone most closely resembles Cash’s gritty sound. With his gray beard, he bears a likeness to Cash in his later years and best expresses his woefulness while crooning the “Folsom Prison Blues” – a number also featuring scene-stealing violin work from Shelley Rotz.
In addition to Demers’ memorable harmonica solo in Act II, he and Wohlbach give compelling vocal performances as Cash’s 15 year-old, dying brother Jack and mourning mother in “Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan.” Wohlbach wails the lamenting lyrics with every fiber of her petite frame.
Autoharp in hand, Wohlbach shines in her light-hearted version of Cash’s witty “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” and also shares a pleasing duet of the title song, “Ring of Fire,” with Lowrie.
Stokinger’s rendition of “A Boy Named Sue” is highly entertaining, especially when he and Lowrie execute a good, old-fashioned bar brawl in slow motion.
Strong cast ensemble numbers include the Gospel hymn “Angel Band” and “Going to Memphis” featuring Demers, Stokinger and Lowrie as weary prisoners.
In a night full of crowd-pleasing numbers, the classics “Man in Black,” “Walk the Line” and “I’ve Been Everywhere” still managed to draw the loudest applause.
The show’s flaws were minor. Some lyrics and much narration got drowned out by the orchestra during Act I, but the sound seemed more balanced in Act II. Ultimately, it succeeds in displaying Cash’s essence and musical legacy with precision and sincerity.