New revue, featuring more than 30 Cash songs, needs polishing and tightening.
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach
When: Through Feb. 2. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Additional matinees on Jan. 9, 23, 30; additional evening performances Jan. 12, 19.
How much: $36-$71
Length: 2 hours
Suitability: Teens and adults
Johnny Cash was many things: country balladeer, poet, rebel, romantic, champion of lost causes. But there’s one label the man in black avoided his whole life: underachiever.
That word, unfortunately, can more than occasionally be applied to “Ring of Fire,” a tribute to Cash that opened last weekend at the Laguna Playhouse.
Subtitled “The Songs of Johnny Cash,” the story-less revue is a two-plus-hour celebration of the larger-than-life country music icon with more than 30 famous and obscure songs, most written by Cash and all of them performed by him over his long career. Though it’s got moments of pleasure, pathos and humor, the show is still a long way from being polished; it’s riddled with dead spots, clunky blocking and awkward shifts of tone.
Steve Steiner, who is credited with “Ring of Fire’s” direction as well as its musical leadership, has altered the concept of the show’s creator, Richard Maltby Jr. (“Ain’t Misbehavin’”). The original “Ring of Fire,” which played briefly and unsuccessfully on Broadway in 2006, featured six male and female performers who more or less represented Cash and his second wife, singer June Carter, at different stages in their lives. They were backed by a first-rate band.
Steiner decided that set-up veered too much into biographical territory. He came up with a potentially more interesting if cumbersome approach: having all of the show’s 10 performers act, dance, sing, and play multiple instruments and back off on the Cash imitation and overt biography.
Anyone who has sat through musical-theater auditions knows it’s tough enough to find hopefuls who are credible triple threats. Gathering together a group of poly-talents this large is a herculean task, and Steiner doesn’t achieve that goal, though the cast is filled with some formidably gifted people.
First among them is Amberly Rosen, one of three women in the cast, whose expert fiddling provides the backbone for many songs and is featured in a couple of numbers, including the obligatory “Orange Blossom Special” (not a Johnny Cash song but a welcome showcase for her nonetheless). Her musicianship, girl-next-door persona and ability to lead the ensemble made Rosen the evening’s standout.
Rosen teamed with the cast’s two other women, Allison Fund and Courtney Rada (by far the best female voice) on some close-harmony singing, which sounded better generally than the harmonies for the big-ensemble numbers. With this many voices I was expecting plenty of five- and six-part chords. I heard far too much doubling instead.
Among the men, Justin Droegemueller and Dale Given held the fort. The former was reminiscent of a younger, more edgy Cash; the latter reminded us of the country star in his sadder but wiser period. Nathan Yates Douglass also impressed in the evening’s second act during a brief mid-set exploration of Cash’s darkest (and most darkly comic) songs. His performance off the macabre “Delia’s Gone” was memorable. (If you’ve never heard this one, it’s worth calling up on YouTube for the shock value alone.)
Droegemueller’s voice isn’t technically polished, but neither was Cash’s, and Droegemueller possesses the quiet gravitas that gave Cash’s music such weight. He is best suited to songs like “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” a little-known but devastatingly brilliant confessional about substance dependency, and “If I Were a Carpenter,” one of Cash’s most tender ballads.
Droegemueller and Given combined effectively on “Ring of Fire,” joined by Fund and Rosen. But the song came off more ragged than it should have, even making allowances for Cash’s gravelly delivery. And persistent sound problems made Given’s voice sound harsher than it was.
Those technical glitches spoiled a few other moments as well. Instrumental solos weren’t always turned up in the mix. Lighting snafus bedeviled some performers during their star turns. The raised bandstand at the back of the set, credited to P&G Designs, is awkward to enter and exit.
Steiner and company have the makings of a tighter and more entertaining show here. But Johnny Cash’s fans are picky, and they have a right to be. His rough-hewn poetry, deceptively simple melodies and rhythmic insistence have to be delivered with accuracy and fidelity to the original as well as sincerity. This group isn’t there yet.