‘Ring of Fire’ production debuts at Plymouth Playhouse
Troupe America and the Plymouth Playhouse will celebrate the life and times of one of American music’s most influential and enduring music legends, Johnny Cash.
“Ring of Fire” opens will run through May 26 at the Playhouse, located in the Best Western Kelly Inn at 2705 Annapolis Lane North in Plymouth.
Richard Maltby Jr. created the production and William Meade conceived it with orchestrations by Steven Bishop and Jeff Lisenby.
Troupe America will bring the music of the Man in Black to life through an ensemble of eight performers/musicians.
Executive Producer Curt Wollan directs Amberly Rosen, Candice Lively, Chet Wollan, Jason Uhlmann, Tim Drake, Brittany Parker, Steve Lasiter and Chad Willow through a three-act production exploring the troubled past and ultimate death of a true musical icon.
“Ring of Fire” was co-written by Cash and June Carter Cash, his wife and Merle Kilgore. It debuted in 1963 and became the biggest hit of Johnny Cash’s career, staying at number one on the charts for seven weeks.
“Ring of Fire” the retrospective was originally produced on Broadway, and Troupe America retooled the show to fit a more intimate cast of eight, compared to the initial 14.
“When the show opened on Broadway, it didn’t do very well,” Wollan said. “It’s not really a New York show. Many people have tried to reinvent it, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The challenge for Troupe America in scaling down the production was to find instrumentalists and vocalists who can also act. Wollan said it worked out well
Cash is never impersonated over the course of the performance, which was a decision made by Maltby to pay proper homage to the legend.
“The persona, the voice, are not duplicable. And the very best we could achieve would be a poor imitation,” wrote Maltby in his notes on “Ring of Fire.” “To me, Johnny Cash’s biography wasn’t the most important story available to tell. Taking all the songs together, adding in the life he led, the person he was, the people he knew, loved and sang about; it seemed to me that there was another story here.”
As opposed to a character donning Cash signature Man in Black clothing, Maltby’s version of Johnny’s life story will progress through the words he wrote and the music he played.
A narrator will advance points of the plot, and short scenes will push the story along. In scenes where Cash is directly portrayed, the part is passed between multiple actors.
According to Wollan, this is done “to make it clear that we’re all the spirit of Johnny Cash.”
Aside from performing, Willow is the music director and leads a band featuring instruments including guitars, mandolin, banjo, bass, organ, harmonica, piano, drums and accordion.
“It’s very cool because we found all the right players to play at the right times,” Willow said. “We’re actually a band, and we try to be like Johnny’s band, not like a pit orchestra. And I love playing with these cats. It’s going to be great.”
The band will play more than 35 of Cash’s songs spanning his entire career including “Ring of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “Jackson” and many more.
Wollan guessed the roughly two-hour show will feature about 85 percent music when weighed with dialogue.
“People come here and they like to hear stories about themselves,” he said. “And Johnny Cash’s music transcends all that. It’s not just about him, you can find a lot of yourself in all of his songs.”
Troupe America will take the show on a national tour following the Plymouth productions beginning in September and running for at least 11 weeks.
Stops on the tour are slated to include performances in Folsom, Cal., where Cash performed for inmates at Folsom State Prison and released a live album in 1968.
Wollan says the troupe is working on possibly setting up productions in the prison itself to pay further homage to Johnny’s character.
The ensemble cast and production team at Plymouth Playhouse say they’ve been working hard, and each has discovered his or her own personal appreciations for Johnny.
“He can take something fairly simple and turn it into this thing that’s going to last for a long, long time,” said Willow. “He can take this simple music and make it so real.”
“It’s the American experience too,” Wollan added. “His music relates to Americans and the things we’ve been through. That’s a good songwriter.”
Tickets and information are available by calling the Plymouth Playhouse at 763-553-1600 or by visiting plymouthplayhouse.com.