Farmers Alley Stumbles To Connect 'Ring of Fire'

By Judith Cookis Rubens

Opening its sixth season, Farmers Alley Theatre continues a tradition of celebratory musical tributes to great artists. Past seasons have honored Patsy Cline and Frank Sinatra. This year, it's a nod to the Man in Black, country music legend Johnny Cash.

Between his brooding persona, poor childhood, loves, addictions and personal contradictions, there's plenty of material. Sadly, creator Richard Maltby Jr.'s ("Ain't Misbehavin'") version sanitizes some of the heartache. With scant dialogue, we barely skim the surface of his poor childhood, working alongside his large family in the Arkansas cotton fields, or his love story with June Carter. His drug addiction and fascination with prison life are mentioned but not explored.

His music (30-plus songs) is charged with telling the whole story, conjuring up the spirit and presence of Cash while his photos and images of Americana are projected behind the musicians/actors. At the show's best, its six performers (many local country/rock names) blend energetically for some lighter moments ("Five Feet High and Rising" and "Daddy Sang Bass").

But as a whole, the evening feels disjointed, almost as if the performers, under Sandra Bremer's direction and choreography, can't quite figure out how to meld their ample, individual talents to evoke Cash. The result is a show that pivots back and forth between brooding grittiness, to wildly overdone humor, to softer, more spiritual leanings.

A strong five-piece band, led by musical director/keyboardist Marie Kerstetter, never wavers though, giving its all to the rockabilly sound.

New York actor Chad Bradford comes closest to accessing Cash's deep sound, and his theatrical take on "A Boy Named Sue" is a definite highlight. His country sound and bass range anchor several numbers.

Rock musician Jim Cummings confidently takes on other classics, including a rockin' rendition of "Folsom Prison Blues," though he only truly comes alive in the patriotic story-song "Ragged Old Flag."

NY Equity actor Ben Williams evokes a young Cash in looks, but he goes for a broader comedic interpretation, which doesn't always connect. Mugging it up with crazy antics through "Delia's Gone," a darkly humorous murder ballad, Williams tries too hard instead of letting the dark lyrics bring the muffled laughs.

The three female performers get plenty of stage time, too, with local country singer Shelagh Brown making an enchanting June Carter Cash. Her part in "Jackson," June's famous duet with Cash, is quite delightful. Local musician/actress Cori Somers steps in to fill the sixth performer spot, but it's her dynamic fiddle playing that's most memorable. Julie Cook Brown adds a motherly presence and sound vocals.

While it's fun to see keyboardist Kerstetter and crew up on stage (typically at Farmers Alley, the band or orchestra is hidden behind the set), it makes things a little crowded on a spare, two-tiered stage as performers enter and exit around the musicians.

When choreography, music and character blend well, as in the show-closer, "I've Been Everywhere," each performer shows off his/her talent, while still honoring Cash's spirit. Unfortunately for "Ring of Fire," this doesn't happen often enough.

REVIEW:

'Ring of Fire'

Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday & 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 12. $31-33. 269-343-2727. http://www.farmersalleytheatre.com

MI Marriage Trial

Michigan Same Sex Couples Demand Respect And Equal Treatment

Michigan Leaders React To Feds Recognition Of Marriages

MI Marriage: Schuette Asks For Full Appeals Court Review

The Stay Delayed Allows 315 Couples To Wed In State

Gay Marriage Defines Schuette's Reelection Campaign

Snyder Says Schuette Going Against Trend

Sixth Circuit Continues Stay

Michigan Marriage Ban Struck Down

Michigan Makes History With First Marriages

Elected Officials, Advocates Petition Schuette To Drop Marriage Aappeal

Pictures from Ingham County - Getting Married

Pictures from Oakland County Clerk's Office - Part 1

Pictures from the Oakland County Clerk's office - Part 2

Pictures from the Oakland County Clerk's Office - Part 3

Pictures from Washtenaw County

White Nationalist Group Files Brief Supporting AG's Appeal In Marriage Ruling

Discredited Witness Part Of Right-Wing Cabal

Schauer Celebrates Overturn Of Michigan Marriage Ban

Equality Michigan Circulating Petition to Drop Appeal

Why Are Governor Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette Wasting Michigan Taxpayer Dollars On A Costly Appeal?

Michigan Marriage Ban Co-Author Goes 'Moral'

BTL's Wedding Expo: Like Pride in April

Snyder Says Marriages Invalid

Elected Officials, Advocates Petition Schuette To Drop Marriage Appeal

Request To Remove Stay Based On Process And Substance

Schuette Lies To Satisfy Political Base

DOCUMENTS: The decision, the stay, and more

BREAKING: Holder Asked To Recognize Michigan Marriages

Michigan Marriage Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

BREAKING: Sixth Circuit Court Of Appeals Issues Temporary Stay On Michigan Case

BREAKING: Same-Sex Couples Across Michigan Get Hitched

BREAKING: Judge Friedman Declares Michigan's Same-Sex Marriage Ban Unconstitutional

Judge Could Rule Late Today In Mich. Marriage Ban

Michigan Marriage Trial: And Now We Wait

Editor's Viewpoint: Our Long Journey To Justice

Federal Marriage Case Decisions Outside Michigan In Circuit Court of Appeals

Peers Distance Themselves As Regnerus Takes The Stand

Marriage Supporters, Protestors Brave Cold At Courthouse

Highlights From Michigan Same-Sex Marriage Hearing

Brown Says Schuette Instructed Clerks To Defy Court

Michigan Marriage Equality Trial Begins Second Week

Marriage Equality Trial Opens : Science v. Fear

Michigan Marriage Center Prepares State For The Possibility!

Michigan Marriage Case Begins

A Trial Full of Experts: Incredible and Not So Credible, In Hazel Park Case

like us on facebook follow us on twitter follow us on google+