Review: ‘Ring of Fire” at People’s Light in Malvern, PA

The man in black has come to Malvern. It’s a long way from The Grand Ole Opry, but People’s Light has imported a cast that seems to have grown up in that world, with musical instruments in hand.

Deb Lyons and David M. Lutken. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Deb Lyons and David M. Lutken. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Ring of Fire is a tribute to Johnny Cash. Jukebox musicals usually feature a made up story using the songs of the chosen subject, (Mamma Mia, All Shook Up), or present a biography of the singer (Jersey Boys, Buddy). This revue is conceived by Richard Maltby, Jr. the award winning creator of such revues as Starting Here Starting Now and Ain’t Misbehavin’.  To quote Director Sherry Lutken’s program notes:

“The show is a landscape of musical memory of a quintessentially American artist and icon performed, personified and played by a cast not only of characters but of themes, ideas and ideals of Southern Roots Music.”

There is no book or dialogue, just a collage of 36 storytelling songs.

The set designed by James F. Pyne, Jr. is a typical barn that can quickly be transformed into the Grand Ole’ Opry stage, or the TV studio of Cash’s ABC television show. The collage begins deep in the depression. Costumer Marla Jurglanis outfits the cast in overalls, work clothes and simple country dresses. Cash describes, in a recording, his family’s first radio, shipped by Sears and Roebuck with a large B battery, and how the music brought focus and pleasure into his life. Lighting and slides by Gregory Scott Miller help to set the mood.

The songs early in the evening are the music young Johnny was inspired by.  There are hymns: “Let the Circle Be Unbroken,” tales of a great flood: “Five Feet High and Rising” and the joys of a good crop: “Look at Them Beans.” The familiar Cash persona appears near the end of act one with “” and “Ring of Fire.” If you have heard historic recordings of the Opry in this era, the casts’ rendition of the commercials and the outfits of the acts are time-machine specific.

The Second Act concentrates on the “Outlaw” singer, who is particularly remembered for concerts and recordings in penitentiaries. Here the cast enacts such prison fare as “Stripes” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Costumer Jurglanis skillfully evokes this switch in tone with actual stripes for the chain gang, and finally the well-known black leathers of Cash’s final period that features “I Walk the Line” and “Far Side Banks of Jordan.” Johnny Cash’s life had numerous dark periods as he struggled with fame and addiction. This is dealt with only slightly in Ring of Fire. Anyone wanting a less joyful approach can see the award-winning bio-film I Walk the Line.

(l to r) David M. Lutken, Eric Scott Anthony, Jon Brown, Michael Hicks and Neil Friedman. Photo by Mark Garvin.
L to R: David M. Lutken, Eric Scott Anthony, Jon Brown, Michael Hicks, and Neil Friedman. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Jukebox musicals like Beautiful, and Jersey Boys, feature actors doing remarkable imitations of the leading singers. This is not attempted in Ring of Fire, which is probably a good idea since Johnny Cash’s God-given bass notes are pretty near inimitable. Every performer is a terrific singer and the songs are all well presented.

The cast of six men and three women is astounding. Leading the group is David M. Lutken, who appeared in the Broadway production as well as People’s Light’s Woody Sez a few seasons ago.

Also featured are Eric Scott Anthony, Jon Brown, Nyssa Duchow, Neil Friedman, Michael Hicks, Deb Lyons, Helen Jean Russell, and Sam Sherwood.  All of these performers have appeared in Ring of Fire many times before as well as similar guitar-band works such as Pump Boys and Dinettes.

The actors are the band.  Each is given a “step out moment” to prove they can sing and command the stage as well as play a variety of instruments such as autoharp, wash tub bass, fiddle, jew’s harp, trumpet, piano, spoons, and mandolin among many others. The orchestrations by Steven Bishop & Jeff Lisenby don’t try to imitate the original recordings but certainly bring variety and inventiveness to the music. Much of the enjoyment comes from watching the exchange of instruments. Everyone seems to play everything. An ensemble highlight is an acted out rendition of “A Boy Named Sue.”

Ring of Fire was certainly out of place in its short Broadway run, and its appeal will definitely lean towards Cash’s legion of fans, many of whom live considerably South of Malvern. None-the-less, the full house, many of whom were hearing some of the songs for the first time, responded with a tremendous ovation. This amazing cast is in for an enjoyable visit to the Northeast.

Running Time: Two hours, with an intermission.

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Ring of Fire plays through Sunday August 14, 2016 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (610) 644-3500, or purchase them online.