News Column

Review: Cash's storytelling is on display in CLO's 'Ring of Fire'

June 7, 2014

By Alice T. Carter, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review



June 07--Before I get down to assessing CLO Cabaret's "Ring of Fire," some context and full disclosure is necessary.

My personal music preferences lean toward smarty-pants urban songwriters such as Stephen Sondheim, John Kander and Fred Ebb, or Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

You're more likely to find me booking a table for the Cafe Carlyle cabaret in Manhattan than making a pilgrimage to Branson.

So I'm completely surprised by how much I enjoyed Richard Maltby Jr. and William Meade's "Ring of Fire" that celebrates the music of Johnny Cash.

Apparently an appreciation for the repertoire of country and gospel songs he wrote or sang have been programmed into our DNA. Even city slickers such as myself have acquired the ability to lip sync along to a remarkable number of them.

Don't expect to learn much about Cash during "Ring of Fire." A few snippets of biographical narrative are included in the two-hour show.

But it's predominantly a showcase for parts or all of 32 songs associated with Cash. They range from the iconic -- "Man in Black," "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line" -- to those that are, at least to me, less familiar -- "Sunday Morning, Coming Down," "Delia's Gone" and "I Still Miss Someone."

Sprinkled into the mix are gospel songs such as "The Far Banks of the Jordan" and comedic numbers that include "Egg Suckin' Dog."

What makes the biggest impression is Cash's ability to tell a story, whether it's one you're already familiar with such as "A Boy Named Sue" or "Straight A's in Love."

Five predominantly youthful performers do double duty as singers and musicians. They're a tuneful group with lovely voices and possessed of instrumental skills on a diverse group of string and percussion instruments, as well as the harmonica.

Much of Cash's songbook celebrates the lives, dreams and heartbreak of resilient, plain-living folks with more than a few miles on them who never seem to get a break no matter how long and hard they work.

Guitarist, songwriter and folk singer Jay Hitt sets a properly supportive mood for Cash's songs. Some may remember him for his appearance in "Always, Patsy Cline" at CLO Cabaret.

Nicole Stefonek, the cast's sole female, makes a strong stand as Cash's wife and muse, singer June Carter, in the comedic "Flushed."

Mitch Marois, Paul Koudouris and Jon Rohlf, all recent graduates of performing-arts programs at either Carnegie Mellon University or Point Park University, are possessed of pleasantly tuneful voices, intelligent phrasing skills and polished instrumental abilities.

But their fresh-faced, youthful confidence undercuts their ability to convey the hard-won, weathered resilience of the folks Cash's songs honored.

Director and choreographer Guy Stroman moves the show along with a relaxed pacing that lingers at appropriate moments but never allows audience interest to lapse.

Scenic designer Tony Ferrieri and lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski provide a supportive setting of multiple weathered, wooden levels and playing areas that emphasize the isolation and loneliness expressed in many of the songs. Vintage black-and-white photos and full-color images complete the portraits created in his lyrics.

The result is an animated and agreeable evening that should satisfy long-time fans and recruit a few new ones.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, acarter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.

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(c)2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

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Source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)


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