Torrington Stories

Ring of Fire: Celebrating the Johnny Cash Songbook

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With five exceptional performers on a set straight from a distant memory of Nashville, Ring of Fire celebrates the life and legacy of Johnny Cash through the songbook that made the Man in Black an American icon. From the young and brash singer searching for a break in the music business to the tough as nails rock star who wasn’t afraid to perform for prisoners in San Quentin to the living legend whose face told a thousand tales of the working man, we all have our own image of Johnny Cash. Under the direction of Jim Luurtsema and musical direction of Matt Albert, the Thomaston Five do more than just do Cash and his music justice, they give the audience a taste of a bygone era  and tell a story of a truly American life through the music that we love.

Everyone from a certain era might have that fond memory of finding Folsom Prison Blues in their parent’s record collection. Other generations might remember discovering his work through the movie “Walk the Line” starring  Joacquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.  But regardless of where they were when they discovered Johnny Cash’s work, they can always identify it because it’s distinct. There are no tepid Johnny Cash fans. So it is strong praise to say that Johnny Cash fans will love this production of Ring of Fire.

Ring of Fire is more concert than play, there is narration that tells the tale of Cash’s life and certain facts and details emerge in interesting ways but the story is found in the music. The narrator of the story is Payton Turpin. Turpin has the wisdom of his years and though there is never any imitation of Cash at all (none of the performers attempt any impression of Cash-they are rather embodying and representing parts of his story), there is something reminiscent in his stance, in a look and there is an authenticity in his performance.

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Lori Holm is the only female in the cast and she voices everyone from Cash’s mother to, most prominently, June Carter who was the love of Johnny Cash’s life.  She has boundless energy and enthusiasm and when she gives a special homage to a staple of the old “Grand Ol’ Opry” show, it’ll make the audience smile from ear to ear. It comes as no surprise that she has a wonderful singing voice (note: all of the performers have a great degree of musical accomplishment-it’s an important part of casting the show)  but she has a number of stand out moments including a powerful solo song after a death of an important person in Cash’s life. There is joy in her performance with Robert Saunders during “Jackson” which is infectious and fun.

Robert Saunders was the lead singer of a rock band in the years before joining the theater. He has the chops to handle many of the young Cash’s discography and he carries some of the heavier acting duties while depicting important moments in the singer’s life including his descent into harmful drugs with a strong rendition of “Sunday Morning Coming Down”

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Michael Conroy (primarily on bass but also vocals and percussion) and Edward Rosenblatt (on guitar, accordion, and among a wide assortment of other instruments) are the consummate professional musicians whom you could probably put in any musical show of any variety and they’d  own it and nail it like they wrote the songs themselves. Each has a song they front vocally but they are usually taking on the musical roles that make Ring of Fire have a full rich sound. Bearing in mind the original off-Broadway production had a 16 piece ensemble with orchestra, the fact that this show does the work with 5 performers is because the musicians who are on stage are superb.

A special tribute is found on stage when Michael Conroy wears a cowboy hat. It is Lori Holm’s father’s hat. Her father, a Johnny Cash fan, died at an early age and Conroy wears the hat as a tribute to Holm’s father.

Jim Luurtsema and stage manager Kate Luurtsema created an inspired set. A giant screen overlooking the raised platforms shows scenes that work in concert with the feelings, emotions or the simple story being told. There’s bales of hay on either side and a bar in front of the stage that was made out of pallets (a working bar so get there early for the show!) The costuming by Barbara Piscopo is classic and true to the work. Jim and Kate Luurtsema created an inspired set.

Ring of Fire’s lasting impact comes from the fact that the music is done with reverence without doing parody or imitation. I absolutely loved their performance of “Papa Sang Bass (circle won’t be broken)”  and there’s a good reason why: This musical group bonded together and in so doing found the essence of what people loved and remembered about Cash in the first place: When people think of Cash, they think of the Man in Black with a guitar in hand on stage with his friends and his beloved making music people wanted to hear.

If you go to Thomaston for the final performances this weekend (and if I hear it correctly the Sunday show is close to selling out) you’ll be transported to a different time when singers barnstormed the country, hitting places like the Opera House and taking their audience on the musical journey that they will carry for years to come.

 

 

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