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Arts

Ring of Fire

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The late Merle Haggard described Johnny Cash as “Abe Lincoln with a guitar."  Growing up on a farm in southern Arkansas during the Great Depression era, Cash went on to fulfill his dream of becoming a recording artist. Writing songs about the everyday man, his musical influence crossed generations and touched the lives of people far and wide.

Vero Beach's Riverside Theatre kicked off its 43rd season with the foot-stompin' musical celebration of   Cash in Ring of Fire that runs through November 13.

Ring of Fire pays homage to the epic talents and rich legacy of the "Man in Black." A small-cast cabaret style show tells the story of Cash's life journey and touches upon his triumphs and struggles, rowdiness and redemption, heartache and faith as well as the great love story between Cash and June Carter.

Conceived by William Meade, created and written by the legendary Richard Maltby, Jr., the show initially played Buffalo’s Studio Arena in the fall of 2005 before opening on Broadway in March 2006. In the Riverside production Maltby has retooled the show to go beyond Cash's iconic image to concentrate on the meaning behind his lyrics. It is the only theatrical show Cash to which Cash gave his approval for and endorsed. He died in 2003 at age 71,

At the center of the Riverside production show are four principals paired off to play different stages in Cash's  life. The show stars Jason Edwards and Benjamin D. Hale in the role of Cash and Trenna Barnes and Allison Briner-Dardenne as June Carter. It is also directed by Edwards who was in the original Broadway production of the show. Edwards is another southern boy who grew up on farms, singing hymns in church, with aspirations of a musical career.

"The songs are about issues and experiences he dealt with, songs that gave voice to so many overlooked and forgotten people," said the ruggedly handsome Edwards. "No one is trying to impersonate Johnny or June. We are trying to honor him and his music and do it in his words and convey it to the audience. Dig into the songs about prisons and trains, which are really poetic.” 

The stage set features a front porch from Cash's house in his early years, the Grand Ole Opry stage and the stark scenes of a prison camp. The musical is complimented by vintage photographs of Cash's life projected on a large screen on stage.

Act I begins with songs about the Cash family roots and growing up on a cotton farm with stories of floods, crops, countryside, workers in the fields, and the loss of his younger brother in a sawmill accident. Then it's off to Sun Records where Johnny laid down his early tracks, and to the Grand Ole Opry with songs celebrating marriage and romance.

The second-act opener about life travels ("I've Been Everywhere") spotlights no less than 10 guitars in a line, played by the actors and musicians who make up the company. This act gives us insight into his life on the road and the drugs he used as a coping device but also what humans do to support the people they love. It explores the empathy Cash had for others who were downtrodden, and insight into the heart of what it means to be human.

"When I was 13 I had the opportunity see him in concert," Edwards recalled. "The power and passion of his songs moved me, but underneath that image and fame was a very patriotic American and deeply spiritual man. Throughout his life Johnny never lost sight of who he was and where he came from."

The four performers and six-member band on stage truly connect with the audience with a song list that includes Country Boy, A Thing Called Love, Five Feet High and Rising, Daddy Sang Bass, Ring of Fire, I've Been Everywhere, Cry, Cry, Cry , A Boy Named Sue, Jackson, I Walk the Line, and The Far Side Banks of Jordan.

The show's superb band is on stage for the entire production: Jeff Lisenby (keyboards, accordion), Brent Moyer (electric & acoustic guitars, trumpet), Walter Hartmann (drums), Brantley Kearns (fiddle), John Marshall (upright bass), and Sam Sherwood (electric & acoustic guitars, dobro, mandolin, harmonica).

Kudos also to the production crew that includes, Lisenby (music director), Denise Patton (choreographer), John Iacovelli (scenic design), Gordon DeVinney (costume design), Kenton Yeager (lighting design), Craig Beyrooti (sound design), and Audrey M. Brown (production stage manager). 

Ring of Fire truly celebrates the epic life, talents and rich legacy of Johnny Cash.

The show runs through November 13 on the Stark Stage at Riverside Theatre. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm with matinees on Wednesdays, select Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $35, call  772-231-6990 or visit http://www.riversidetheatre.com

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