The Milwaukee Rep closes its Stackner Cabaret season with a tribute to the country music legend Johnny Cash that opened this past weekend. Bereft of any kind of elaborate narrative, Ring of Fire allows the artist's life to resonate through the songs that he left behind. An ensemble of five rumbles and rolls through over two dozen songs by Cash.
The show tells the story of the life of Cash as portrayed by a couple of different performers. Stage veteran Jason Edwards hosts the show, delivering much of the narrative as an older, more experienced Cash, while Eddie Clendening portrays a young, rising talent at the beginning of his career. The two men are backed-up by seasoned musician David Miles Keenan on a variety of strings and Mark W. Winchester on bass. Recording artist Trenna Barnes lends deft and dynamic vocals to the show, breathing life into June Carter's vocals and a few by Johnny Cash himself including a particularly speedy rendition of I've Been Everywhere.
While there is a solid design element to the production, Ring of Fire's lack of a dominant narrative threatens to make the show feel like a slickly produced performance of a Johnny Cash cover band. If there were a stronger narrative, however, it would threaten to make the rough, earthy feel of Cash's music feel a bit too glossy and synthetic. As it is, the atmosphere at a Rep cabaret show pulls really fiercely in the direction of technical achievement over genuine emotion. The presence of experienced musicians Keenan and Winchester and the sharp stage charisma of Barnes keep the spirit of the show true to the style of the man it honors.
The Milwaukee Rep's production of Ring of Fire runs through May 5th at the Stackner Cabaret. For ticket reservations, call 414-224-9490.
(Weird thing about this whole show for me was that fact that, growing up, I'd only ever heard the music of Johnny Cash on TV commercials for Johnny Cash compilation albums . . .so I never really liked his stuff until 15 years ago or so when I found myself hearing his songs through local Johnny Cash cover band Edgar Allen Cash. Only in hearing his stuff mixed with Edgar Allen Poe poems performed in the style of Johnny Cash songs did I start to get it. Years later, I went back and listened to Cash's music as he performed it . . . and I didn't like it as much as I did Edgar Allen Cash . . . which means that I actually like the cover band better than the original performer. . . and so seeing this particular cover band feels a bit more authentic to me for some reason . . . but still not quite as good as Edgar Allen Cash . . . .still miss that band . . . )