Eight Ways to Cash
When eight actors simultaneously enter the stage at the Alhambra for “Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Music Show,” raised eyebrows greet them. Immediately, the four men and four women let the audience know that each one of them is Johnny Cash.
Without worrying about casting one actor as Cash, “Ring of Fire” focuses on the music and from the actors and accompanying band. The Alhambra stage easily accommodates all eight performers. Throughout the show, the women dance and harmonize, and the men smile and play various stringed instruments.
This musical revue showcases Cash favorites, instead of setting up a specific story arc around the legendary singer-songwriter’s life, leaving that to popular the 2005 film “Walk the Line.” And all for the better, really. This show’s more for music lovers, as opposed to fans of bio-pics who might happen to enjoy some classic country tunes — but fans of all kinds will enjoy the performances.
“Ring of Fire” lets viewers fall back in love with Cash’s songs, allowing those that moved you long ago to move you once again. With the soulfulness of Chris Blisset’s voice and the quirkiness of Lisa Valdini’s onstage presence, the show prompts singin’, clappin’ and, for the right sort of person, some preachin’.
The night opens with a telling of Cash’s family lineage. From this, the players perform highlights of Cash’s life to the tune of tracks that create adequate exposition. By the fifth number, “Five Feet High and Rising,” the artists — though seated — dance between playing Cash and other figures in the Man in Black’s life so well that an “a-ha” moment occurs. The quest to pin down one actor as Cash is futile, and the realization that the eight of them will transition through various roles sets in. By the time “Daddy Sang Bass” sends the performers to the floor and the theatergoers their feet, it’s apparent that the show is more of a concert than a narrative-driven production.
The eight singer-dancers might take center stage, but it’s not long before the show highlights four other key players. The accompanying band complements and highlights the main players’ performances.
Particularly, Kelly McCarty plucking that upright bass merits all the head nods and grins that greet it. And Jesse Leach’s electric guitar subtly acts as its own narrative force. But their strong performances don’t compete for the spotlight with McCarty and Leach’s vocals, they accentuate it. After all, you can’t have Cash without those killer country bass lines.
The four-piece band isn’t the only instrumentation in this show. Six of the eight actors strum the six acoustic guitars on stage during the opener, “Country Boy.” Throughout the show, Blisset reveals dexterous guitar skills, Sam Sherwood plays a heart-breaking mandolin and Ashlie Brooke Roberson provides some Southern-tinged fiddle. Blisset punctuates off that down-home feel with a little harmonica.
Among the performers, Blisset and Sherwood stand out as the group’s multi-instrumentalists, which, in turn, makes the show ignite brilliantly as its own ring of fire.
The sparse stage design uses three projection screens for images and stock video — an unnecessary effect in a production where the players have such arresting faces and contagious joviality.
Though many of the men’s outfits wouldn’t be inappropriate for a Saturday night get-together, not all of the styling is tame. The more vivacious costumes debut during “Get Rhythm,” which presents the women in bright, ’60s-in-the-South dresses and a colorful, tucked-in look for the men. This is definitely a show for anyone who’s ever wanted to see Cash depicted as a Southern belle.
The Alhambra’s nosh options match the theme of each show, so items such as the country-fried steak and the pecan bourbon pie excite the eye and the tastebuds. For those who pass up meat, the veggie quesadilla is delicious and filling.
This is a production that sends you home to rest a needle on your most beloved Cash record and reminisce about that night you spent with the country legend.