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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 1.24.08




Cashing Out

Uneven showcase of Johnny Cash songs at ACE

BY CHUCK ADAMS

Inside the campy, country-fried restaurant set that decorates Actors Cabaret of Eugene, the lights turn up onstage and out walk 11 actors who proclaim, one by one, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash!"

Amanda Fackrell belts it out. PHOTO COURTESY OF ACTORS CABARET OF EUGENE

The moment is quite touching, echoing both the refrains of "I'm Spartacus!" from Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus and Todd Haynes' critically acclaimed film on the life and songs of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, which uses six actors to portray the rabble-rouser in various incarnations. The scene that opens Ring of Fire is supposed to be in tribute to Cash, who began nearly every concert with this greeting. But Ring of Fire is not a tribute to Johnny Cash; it is a tribute to the story in the songs he wrote.

This distinction is important, for it sets the parameters. This is not Walk the Line: The Musical, nor is it a strictly biographical telling of Cash's life through musical numbers. Ring of Fire, which recently ended its run on Broadway, takes 38 songs from Cash's repertoire and arranges them in somewhat thematic order, from "Country Boy" farmer's son to "I've Been Everywhere" internationally touring country legend. ACE has decided to trim five songs from the Broadway production; sadly, one of the five includes Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt," a fragile, heartbreaking late-career masterpiece. But cutting "Hurt" is in keeping with what appears to be ACE's intent, which is to put a happy face on a terribly pained musician's songs. The effect should offend serious Cash fans.

Cash's youth spent in the Arkansas fields with his family, the trauma surrounding his brother's death, his wooing of June Carter, his time spent in prison and his own personal redemption, as sung in "I Walk The Line," are all noted here, sure enough. But the backstory is not. When Act Two opens up with the male actors in a prison setting, the story between the songs is scrapped. Without knowing Cash's own biography, his struggle with drug abuse, alcoholism and marital strife, the songs become empty vessels for drama. This same strategy was employed with Beatles songs in the recent film Across the Universe. Like the songs in that film, the cover songs in Ring of Fire only spur a desire to hear the originals.

And how about the music? Recorded by Don Kelley (who is both the musical director and part of the acting ensemble) and then piped in from backstage, the instrumentals (which sound fine enough) are kept quiet so they don't trump the actors' singing voices. Normally I'm not a fan of microphones, but they would have helped this production. Some actors had trouble with projection while others simply did not have the vocal talent to convincingly deliver Cash's songs (performer of "Ring of Fire" and "Man in Black," I'm looking at you).

Nevertheless there are fine performances from the female actors, particularly Amanda Fackrell, who nails down the Southern accent required for Cash's country songs but also the deep down soul of Cash's entire enterprise. Fackrell's voice is crisp in the intimate space at ACE, and more of her genuine theatrics could be spread around the rest of the production.

A pit band was also badly missing from the show. Removing the Man in Black himself from the production is one thing, but also to remove the auditory delight of his music performed live is to leave only his lyrics coming out of the lips of actors on a stage. A majority of the songs come out cold when they should be energetic. The show does briefly pick up steam during ensemble songs like "Daddy Sang Bass" and "I've Been Everywhere," the latter probably the first time when both actors and audience are having a lot of fun. Unfortunately, it's also the final song of the show.      

Ring of Fire runs through Feb. 23. Tickets available at www.actorscabaret.org or 683-4368.