July 07--hen Jason Edwards was 13, he sat 10th row center in the Charlotte Coliseum and saw Johnny Cash perform live.
"This was Johnny Cash's heyday, 1969, when he was in his prime," said Edwards, who both stars in and directs "Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash," opening Thursday and running through Aug. 4 at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Edwards' history with the show goes back to 2006, when he was in the cast of the Broadway production.
But the North Carolina native's history with Cash goes back much further. That night long ago, he also saw June Carter, Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers. The music is ingrained in him.
"I still have the program," Edwards said in an interview during a break in rehearsals at ASF for "Ring of Fire."
Who better to lead this country music cavalcade, which pays homage to the life and times of John R. "Johnny" Cash, one of America's greatest music icons? When Cash died nearly a decade ago, he left behind a treasure trove of country recordings and the indelible image of the man in black with the deep, unmistakeable voice that could convey humor and heartbreak equally.
The show includes more than 30 songs that Cash wrote or performed in his career, including "Folsom Prison Blues," "A Boy Named Sue," "I Walk the Line," "I've Been Everywhere" and the musical's namesake, "Ring of Fire."
The musical went from Broadway to sell-out performances at regional theaters across the country, including the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Denver Center Theatre Company and the Arkansas Repertory Theatre.
Standing on its own
Theater audiences are now familiar with musicals that chronicle the lives of musicians, particularly those from the country music world.
This is not one of those shows, Edwards said. It stands in a category of its own.
"It's not a tribute show to Johnny Cash, but it certainly is a tribute to his music and his words," he said. "There's no one impersonating Johnny Cash or June Carter, as in the 'Lost Highway' Hank Williams show or 'Always: Patsy Cline,' or 'Will Rogers Follies,' which are great shows. I've been in or directed each of those shows, and I love them.
"What's different about this is it's taking Johnny Cash's words, what he was trying to say, and his songs, and putting them on stage, getting beneath his image, of what he was trying to say in his words and his music. It's profound, remarkable."
Performing along with Edwards is a cast of Nashville-based actors and musicians, including Trenna Barnes, Allison Briner, John England, Walter Hartman, Scott Icenogle, Brantley Kearns, Johnny Kinnaird, Brent Moyer and Jeff Lisenby, who is also the show's musical director.
"Ring of Fire: The Music of
Johnny Cash" was created by Tony Award-winner Richard Maltby Jr. and conceived by William Meade. Malby also created the Broadway hits "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Fosse." It was theatrical producer Meade who convinced Cash to permit his songs to be used as the basis for a musical.
The remainder of the artistic team includes choreographer Denise Patton, set designer John Iacovelli, costumer designer Jeffrey Todhunter, lighting designer Phil Monat, sound designer Richelle Thompson and stage manager Bernita Robinson.
True to its subject's life, there are solemn turns in "Ring of Fire." But the songs and the cast -- accompanied by a string bass and a fiddle -- can be upbeat, with lively dances, laughter and hand-clapping breaking out from time to time. It's a way of celebrating, in song, the many shades of the famed "man in black."
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: "Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash"
WHEN: Opening Thursday and running through Aug. 4
WHERE: Alabama Shakespeare Festival, 1 Festival Dr. in Blount Park
ADMISSION: Tickets start at $30 and may be obtained by calling 800-841-4273, online at www.asf.net or by visiting the ASF box office.
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