“Ring of Fire” encircles the life of Johnny Cash
The Milwaukee Rep revue, retooled from a Broadway production to require half the cast, is a heartfelt, moving tribute to the Man in Black.
The circle of life came ablaze on the Stackner Cabaret stage Sunday, thanks to the Milwaukee Rep’s retooled production of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash. Directed by Richard Maltby Jr., architect of the original Broadway production, the revue is a heartfelt tribute to the music legend’s life and career.
The show begins in the dark, with one guitar-wielding man walking into a spotlight to the sound of a train rolling down the tracks – one slightly mirroring the pounding piano chords that end Cash’s cover of “Hurt.” That man is Jason Edwards, who, like most of the five-person cast, embodies many personas in his time on stage. Edwards, a stoic baritone, mostly doubled as an older Cash and a narrator – although the two blended together almost interchangeably at times, for obvious reasons.
As he sang the first verse of “Let the Train Blow the Whistle,” a poignant song about dying without regrets from Cash’s American Recordings album series, the rest of the cast joined him on stage. Eddie Clendening, young and with dark slicked back hair, primarily portrayed a younger Cash, playing his electric guitar with a perfectly appropriate and genuine ease and swagger.
Trenna Barnes, the only woman in the cast, takes on all the needed female roles, including June Carter, who she plays with absolute confidence. Barnes stole the show several times in the night, most notably when she took the stage alone to sing “I Still Miss Someone,” accompanied only by a piano arrangement playing over an old radio. We forget that Cash was known for his tender, heart-wrenching songs of love and loss long before he donned the black.
Mark Winchester and David Miles Keenan, each brilliantly talented musicians, portrayed Cash’s backing duo, the Tennessee Two. Winchester had several upright bass solos that had the crowd holding their breath, but it’s the solo where he played beats with a pair of drumsticks on a wooden chair that made them explode with cheers.
Keenan was the master of strings, switching between acoustic guitar, steel guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. He’s also got some comedic chops, perfectly nailing a skit set at Sun Records where he portrays Luther Perkins, being scolded by producer Sam Phillips (Edwards). Phillips wants Perkins to focus and stop playing all the wrong notes, so Perkins keeps hitting those wrong notes with precision, Keenan offering a subtle smirk alongside every one.
The first act and much of the second feature Cash’s lighter, more romantic fare. Its pinnacle might be the start of the second act, with the playful and uplifting “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Barnes took the lead on the song’s rapid-fire verses, the tempo increasing with each, and even tried to get audience members to join in.
Then the show turned 180 degrees, in a well-orchestrated pivot transitioning into the drug-filled chapter of Cash’s life. A somber Clendening began the set with “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” an anguished tune that nonetheless preserved a touch of humor and wry cynicism. The quintet kept that tone intact throughout the darker songs, flowing into a sweet redemption.
I’m going to leave the last portion of the show undocumented, as it’s better to experience for yourself. Knowing the nature of the show, it’s not hard to guess how it ends. But there’s something about the way Maltby Jr. and company wrap up Ring of Fire that deserves the mystery. It’s a personal, spiritual finale, and one well-suited to the life of Cash himself.
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash runs until May 5 at the Milwaukee Rep. Visit the Rep’s website or call 414 224-9490 for tickets.