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RING OF FIRE: It’s Empty

by | Jun 28, 2024 | Review | 0 comments

If you’re looking for a musical revue with no story or ideas, you’re in luck.

This Arts Club production of Ring of Fire is well staged, well designed, it contains some strong performances and, of course, it features a bunch of great songs by Johnny Cash and others, but there’s virtually no sense of deepening engagement as the evening progresses, so why spend time with it?

And why is this revue being produced in Vancouver? I grew up on the prairies, my grandparents had a cattle ranch and, when we were little, our nanny sang country and western songs to my brother and me, but I saw virtually none of my Canadian experience reflected in the hokey Americana of this entertainment. The gigantic American flag hanging on the back of Patrick Rizzotti’s set, the bright projections of stars in Robert Sondergaard’s lighting design, the Southern accents the actors slide around in, and the mythologizing of the American South all kept reminding me that I was being subjected to the iconography of a foreign culture.

In her director’s notes, Rachel Peake talks about growing up in rural Saskatchewan and says, “Johnny Cash belongs to every rink, every Boxing Day dance, every shop radio of my childhood.” I can’t argue with Peake’s experience. But I can say it’s not my experience and I am tired of Canadian cultural institutions furthering American cultural hegemony.

Ring of Fire sketches the contours of Johnny Cash’s life but it spends almost no time dealing with its complexities — zero time before intermission. After the break, we get one song that addresses Cash’s drug addiction, “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. The lyrics are haunting: “On a Sunday mornin’ sidewalk/ I’m wishin’, Lord, that I was stoned/ ‘Cause there’s somethin’ in a Sunday/ That makes a body feel alone.” The musically gifted and charismatic Tainui Kuru, who’s playing the young Johnny Cash, ably fills the dark corners of this song in the evening’s standout number. “Sunday Morning” is followed by “All Over Again”, which is presented as a loving response from June Carter, and is delivered with moving understatement by Devon Busswood. So two numbers in Ring of Fire have emotional and narrative resonance, but that’s it. And Ring of Fire is about a great artist who had serious and ongoing struggles with addiction while wrestling with the forces of fame and Christianity.

And let’s not forget that June Carter had her own demons. According to the LA Times, her son, John Cash “first revealed his mother’s substance abuse in his 2007 biography, Anchored in Love: The Life and Legacy of June Carter Cash”. The complicated triangle between Johnny Cash, June Carter, and addiction is explored in the new musical The Ballad of Johnny and June, which premiered at California’s La Jolla Playhouse in May and will open at Calgary’s Citadel Theatre in November.

But I did say this Arts Club production of Ring of Fire is well performed and produced. Impressively, all six cast members (Kuru, Busswood, Daniel Deorksen, Frankie Cottrell, Patrick Metzger, and Catriona Murphy) play multiple instruments: acoustic guitars, electric guitars, a banjo, a mandolin, a fiddle, an autoharp, and a washboard. Metzger is terrific on the stand-up bass.

Busswood tends to overact, but her performance is more effective when it’s more contained, and she aces the bravura speed of “I Been Everywhere”. Things are generally solid in the acting department.

With the help of choreographer Nicol Spinola, who provides appealingly casual choreography that manages to look like a spontaneous good time, director Peake has shaped a production that is seamless in its flow.

And, although I complained about the Americana in some of the design elements, it’s the material they’re serving that I’m taking exception to, not the work of the designers itself. Like a gigantic historical general store, Rizzotti’s set is full of textures: lamps, kitchen gear, even a rusted-out old car. And Sondergaard’s lighting focuses the eye and mood.

The one design element that might need some attention is Trevor Tews’s sound. I couldn’t figure out why some familiar voices in the cast sounded harsh to me for the first time, especially in their upper registers. My companion, who’s a singer, thought it was because the microphones were so heavy on treble. I can’t confirm that, but it did sound to me like something was off.

Overall, though, the production itself is solid; it’s the material that’s hollow.

RING OF FIRE Created by Richard Maltby Jr. Conceived by William Meade. Directed Rachel Peake. On Sunday, June 23. An Arts Club Theatre Company production running at the Granville Island Stage until August 11. Tickets and information

PHOTO CREDIT: With its musicality, emotional thoroughness, and charm, Tainui Kuru’s is the outstanding performance in Ring of Fire. (Photo by Moonrider Productions)

NOTE: An earlier version of this review reversed the names of Tainui Kuru and Frankie Cottrell.


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Copyright ©2024 Colin Thomas. All rights reserved.