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Review: Versatile ensemble mines riches of Johnny Cash songs

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a&e Duluth, 55802
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

"Ring of Fire" is a jukebox musical featuring the music of Johnny Cash. "He left us with a lot of great music," we were told at the start of the show Thursday night at the Underground, "and that's what we're going to give you tonight." There is no attempt to imitate the Man in Black: that would be "disrespectful," we were informed. The mission statement of this thoroughly enjoyable show is simple: Have a good time, stomp your feet, clap your hands, and sing along.

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The cast consists of Abe Curran, Robert Lee, Dylan Rugh, Megan Solem, music director Blake Thomas, and director Mary Fox, who turn some of Cash's best known tunes into duets and group numbers. Each plays multiple instruments in the show and when they get to the title tune, you will see some of the most unique instrumentation choices of recent memory.

"Ring of Fire" is neither a musical, where characters suddenly burst into song, or a concert, when the band comes up with an introduction for each song. Instead, I was reminded of how they used to stage musical numbers on comedy variety shows like "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" or "The Song and Cher Show," with a sense of what the song was about.

Each cast member takes turns speaking on Cash's behalf, although not every song is explicitly linked to a moment in his life. If you have seen "Walk the Line," then you will be familiar with the dramatic linchpins of Cash's career, but being ignorant of the man's biography is certainly no impediment to enjoying this show. Besides, this show gets it right as to what song Cash sang to get his contract from Sun Records, and the movie did not.

In seventy minutes time this sextet works in over two dozen songs, helped by working a chorus of "In the Highway, In the Hedges" in with "Country Boy," and doing a medley of "Will the Circle be Unbroken" and "Daddy Sang Bass." A half dozen songs in the audience was starting to sing and clap along with the songs. One of the standout numbers is "Big River," which featured Curran singing and playing electric guitar, Thomas on slide guitar, and the rest providing a driving beat that culminated in Fox and Rugh tap dancing.

For all the foot stomping songs like "Five Feet High and Rising," there are some nice quiet moments as well: Fox's plaintive "I Still Miss Someone," and a particularly sobering version of "Sunday Morning Coming Down" by Thomas, as well as an elegantly stripped down duet of "If I Were a Carpenter" by the two that was my favorite moment of the evening.

Then there is the fun to be had with songs like "Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog" and "Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart," along with the playful back-talking, verbal and otherwise, between Solem and Rugh on "Jackson." All that gets trumped by the competitive element as they take turns trying to make it all the way through their respective verses from "I"ve Been Everywhere," which, on opening night, was a 50-50 proposition.

There were some inconsistent volume levels from some of the singers. During the big finish, "I Walk the Line," the audience clapping along actually started clapping more softly the better to hear the singing. After this unique show, the audience was encouraged to stick around, take advantage of the open bar, talk, and listen to more music, making this a rare occasion when I was loath to leave the theatre.

LAWRANCE BERNABO once sketched out a couple of musicals, using the songs of Stevie Nicks and Rachael Kilgour respectively, but they never got beyond the "neat idea" stage.  So far...

If you go:

 

  • · What: "Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash"
  • · Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.
  • · When: 7:30 tonight and Saturday, and June 19-21
  • · Tickets:  $16 adults, $12 students
  • · For information: (218) 733-7555 or duluthplayhouse.org
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