Whether you’re a Johnny Cash aficionado, or a fan of local musical theatre favorites Cayman Ilika and Jared Michael Brown (count me amongst the latter), the Cash songbook musical Ring of Fire at Federal Way’s Centerstage is well worth your time. As described by creator Richard Maltby. Jr., Ring of Fire is “a book musical without a book — a play made up of songs.” In other words, if you want the larger view of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, then stream or rent the movie I Walk the Line. But if you love and grew up on Johnny Cash’s music, you can still find a fine old time.
The show was revamped by Maltby, Jr. after a short Broadway run of 57 performances from 3 couples, ranging from Young, to Middle-age, and Older, to just a single couple and 4 stalwart musicians. The company takes on 38 of the best known songs in the Cash canon. Director Amy Johnson (a locally prominent choreographer) keeps the staging lively and never overly dance driven, which would be a mistake. Musical Director Jeff Bell’s efforts are accomplished. But when all is said and done, the show rises or falls on the couple singing those songs, as they really make no attempt to become Johnny or June. Brown and Ilika prove more than up to the task.
Jared Michael Brown is easily one of the best young male character leads in Seattle. He’s loaded with humor, soul, and charisma, and his rich, robust, Bass-baritone voice is a smart fit for the Cash vocal repertoire. Nowhere is this more evident than on a memorable, shaded rendition of Folsom Prison Blues, plus a droll reading of the comic A Boy Named Sue (lyrics by Shel Where the Sidewalk Ends Silverstein, FYI.)
Cayman Ilika, whose vocal range is one for the books, has the emotional skills to caress a song like All Over Again to perfection, then turn around and spit out fast patter lyrics worthy of Sondheim in the crowd-rousing I’ve Been Everywhere.
The musician/singers who fill out the company, Jack Dearth, Tom Stewart, Sean Tomerlin (all on guitars) and Zack Summers, do themselves proud throughout, and more than share the spotlight with the headliners. I Walk the Line is naturally included, along with many other classics, such as Sunday Morning Coming Down, Egg Suckin’ Dog, Jackson and Five Feet High and Rising.
Richard Lorig’s scenic design is simplicity itself, both spacious and characterful, and Rachel Wilkie’s costumes are Grand Ol’ Opry ready. Sound design by Amy Silveria strikes a perfect blend between the singers and musicians. I grew up hearing a lot of Cash music in my youth on his ABC TV variety show, so while I’m not particularly a Cash fan, the music is embedded in me nonetheless. Ring of Fire not only lets you embrace the joys of vintage, old-time classic country music, but it showcases a sterling company that helps keep it alive.
Ring of Fire at Centerstage (3200 SW Dashpoint Road in Federal Way) runs through February 14, 2016. For tickets, direction, and more info call 253-661-1444 or go to centerstagetheatre.com
Editor: The original version of this article stated the song Sunday Morning Coming Down was performed by Jared Michael Brown. It was exquisitely performed by the marvelous Tom Stewart.