‘Ring of Fire’ brings Johnny Cash to Croswell Opera HouseWritten by Jason Mack | | email@example.com
The Man in Black is back from May 13 to 22 in “Ring of Fire,” as the Croswell Opera House tells the life story of Johnny Cash through his songs.
The show debuted on Broadway in March 2006 and lasted one month. Despite its struggles, artistic director Jere Righter saw potential.
“When we choose shows, it’s about what we think our audience is going to respond to,” Righter said. “A show like this appeals to people who aren’t interested in a more traditional Broadway musical. We’ve had guys coming to the theater in cowboy hats. It’s important for the Croswell to provide entertainment for all kinds of people.”
Eric Parker directs “Ring of Fire” with four actors and four actresses, each performing as Cash and other people in his life. The actors are Phil Baugh, Tim Ganun, Bruce Hardcastle and Steve Smith. The actresses are Kyrie Bristle, April Gray, Natasha Ricketts and Beth Skochelak.
The eight performers are balanced with an eight-piece band including guitar, bass, fiddle, trumpet, keyboard and percussion. The band features music director Dave Rains on keyboard and Wil DeYoung with several guitar solos.
“We usually have an orchestra pit,” Hardcastle said. “We’re used to working with quality musicians. This is fun because they are behind us and we can interact with them. With a pit, they are usually peripheral and you’re spitting on them.”
Many songs in “Ring of Fire” feature the entire cast harmonizing on songs originally performed only by Cash.
“Even something as small as ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ you hear the main voice that sings it, but you also hear the background vocals,” Baugh said. “Johnny Cash was never known for background vocals. Then you have songs like ‘Daddy Sang Bass’ and ‘Angel Band’ that are huge five and six-part harmonies. It’s really cool to hear how people have interpreted Johnny Cash for a multiple-voice group but still keep the core of Johnny Cash.”
With more than 30 songs in two acts separated only by a few brief monologues, “Ring of Fire” is more of a concert than a musical.
“It was definitely the first time I’ve ever done it, and I loved it,” Ricketts said. “I loved not having to memorize lines and just sing. That’s what I love to do.”
“It was tons of fun to just put on a concert,” Skochelak said. “Hopefully that came across to the audience.”
On opening weekend, Baugh was just excited to finally have an audience.
“It’s great to have people to respond to and play off of,” he said. “It’s great when we’re clapping at people to not be looking at red chairs. It’s been a real joy to have people to engage with and get into the songs with us.”
One challenge for the cast is telling the audience Cash’s life story through a concert instead of a musical.
“A lot of his songs are telling a story,” Smith said. “It’s a lot like being onstage and reciting a monologue or saying lines, except you’re saying it to music. The music he sang hit so many different areas. He sang songs about love, going to jail, doing drugs, loving God and loving your life. It’s such diverse material that you can come up with anything from it.”
“The unique thing about Johnny Cash’s music is when you sing it, the lyrics make you feel something,” Hardcastle said. “I’m more of a musical theater type. For me to do this, I really had to think differently.”
While the show uses monologues to connect some songs, the lyrics handle most of the storytelling.
“The challenge was about keeping the story going,” Ganun said. “It’s not a traditional musical with as much story and dialogue. The songs lend themselves to exactly what we’re doing here. He’s the absolute American storyteller, like a modern day Mark Twain.”
Ganun looks the most like Cash in the cast, but he was undecided when asked about his resemblance to the Man in Black.
“Some of the cast may say I look like Jim Carrey, and I don’t agree with that either,” Ganun said. “I do feel like I have a little bit of Johnny Cash in me. I admire his work, and I especially admire what he did in his personal life. He wasn’t perfect. He had failures, but I really appreciate who he was. He had a strong commitment to family.”
Cash has been an influence since the start of Ganun’s career in entertainment.
“He’s one of the biggest heroes in my life,” Ganun said. “I’ve been singing his songs since I was 8 years old. It’s been an absolute pleasure to do it. We’ve seen people cry, and we’ve seen sheer joy of songs resonating with them. It does the same thing for me.”
Ricketts also connected to the emotional and spiritual roller coaster of Cash’s life.
“You can see through the show he has been through so many things,” Ricketts said. “It’s played through his music. It shows how many struggles he went through. I can’t even imagine losing my brother, but he wrote songs about it. He channels all his life into his songs.”
The song “Waiting On The Far-Side Banks Of Jordan,” is a duet between Bristle and Baugh as Cash’s mother Carrie and brother Jack, after Jack died at the age of 15. The performance is the dramatic highlight of a mostly upbeat show.
“It’s been interesting not having a specific character role to play,” Baugh said. “I sing as the role of the brother that dies, then the next scene I come out and sing a duet with somebody in a completely different feel. There are so many different things to portray and get across to the audience. It’s a challenge as an actor, but it’s a lot of fun.”
“That spectrum helps lend itself to all different age groups,” Gray said. “People who were around during that time and younger people can relate to what his songs are about.”
“Ring of Fire” plays at 8 p.m. May 20 and at 3 p.m. May 21 and 22. Tickets are $25 for adults, $22 for seniors and students, and $15 for children 12 and younger. For information, visit Croswell.org or call (517) 264-7469. The Croswell is located at 129 E. Maumee St. in Adrian, Mich.