If you’re anticipating just another Johnny Cash tribute concert, think again. Beef & Boards’ “Ring of Fire” exceeds all expectations.
“Ring of Fire,” conceived and created by Richard Maltby Jr. and William Meade, intersperses the music of folk singer and country and western star Johnny Cash with spoken recitation about his life, breaking down Cash’s musical history into four groups: ‘Boyhood Years;’ ‘Opry & Fame;’ ‘Dark Years;’ and ‘Redemption and Celebration.’
As the show opens, the eight ensemble performers — Melody Berger, Tim Drake, Brian Gunter, Jill Howe, Allison Kelly, Jeremy Sevelovitz, Travis Smith and Zack Steele — appear in silhouette against a dawning backdrop. Each announces, “I’m Johnny Cash,” in the familiar way that fans of the country singer will recognize. By the time the lights are fully up, you believe that each and every one of them IS Johnny Cash.
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Staged against a rustic background of corrugated metal fencing among a collection of wooden barrels and crates, the ensemble performs on an uneven rotating stage, which was sometimes a hill to climb and other times the bank of a flooding Mississippi River.
All eight of the actors not only sing, but play an instrument: the ukulele, mandolin, banjo, a washboard (complete with metal-tipped gloves,) a bass and several guitars. Throughout the evening, watching the versatile musicians move through the repertoire of songs and shuffle around the stage through the instruments was nothing short of impressive. For example the guy who was assumed to be “just” a vocalist and washboard percussionist was suddenly on the drum set and then the guitar; the banjo player moved to the piano; the women swapped out their guitars to strut their dance moves, and then grabbed up an autoharp and the bass. All-in-all, the cast rotated through 14 different instruments.
During “Boyhood Years,” the audience enjoys Cash’s early hits, with songs like “Big River” and “Daddy Sang Bass.” As the show progresses into the Grand Ole Opry years, Cash meets his wife June Carter. The recreation of the Grand Ole Opry on the Beef & Boards stage seemed authentic, from the men’s red and black cowboy shirts and the women’s petticoated square dance skirts to the retro square microphone they sang into.
While the men take turns portraying the Johnny Cash role in the show, Howe and Kelly trade off singing the part of June Carter for two of the most entertaining numbers of the evening: “If I Were a Carpenter” and “Jackson,” songs that Cash and Carter sang together for years in concert.
Minnie Pearl, a Grand Ole Opry regular, makes an appearance in her hat (still with the price tag hanging down) to sing “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart.” (Google the lyrics; you won’t be disappointed.) This segment even includes classic Opry commercials for Goo Goo Cluster candies and Martha White Flour.
And just when it seems that the audience had seen every skill the performers had to offer, Howe and Kelly pull out trumpets for the signature brass introduction to “Ring of Fire.”
Square dancing and line dancing with a hint of Texas two-step and the fresh arrangements of well-known songs move the evening along.
One of the highlights occurs in the second act when fiddle-player Melody Berger — who had heretofore been a background instrumentalist — takes center stage and not only rips her way through the classic fiddle tune “Orange Blossom Special” on the violin, but belts out the vocals as well. At the song’s conclusion, one of the ensemble points to a member of the audience and declares, “This guy here wants you to play that song faster.” Berger obliges, playing it in double-time — and then triple-time.
When the show ends — to a standing ovation — the ensemble has sung through more than 30 Johnny Cash songs, capping it off with a hilarious encore performance of Cash’s classic “A Boy Named Sue.”
All good performers know that when they’re having fun on stage, the audience has fun, too. There is fun to be had in spades at Beef & Boards production of “Ring of Fire.” Don’t miss it.
“Ring of Fire,” a Johnny Cash tribute performance, plays through Aug. 13 at Beef & Board Dinner Theatre, 9301 Michigan Road. For more information, visit beefandboards.com or call 317-872-9664.