By Beki Pineda
RING OF FIRE. Created by Richard Maltby, Jr.; directed by Kelly Van Oosbree. Produced by Vintage Theatre (1468 Dayton St., Aurora) through Aug. 6. Tickets available at 303-856-7830 or vintagetheatre.com.
Within the limited kingdom of Denver theater, a new star is born with the opening of RING OF FIRE at Vintage. Isabella Duran appears out of nowhere to absolutely stun audiences as a singer and musician in a six-piece ensemble celebrating the music and life of Johnny Cash. Beside singing in a sweet, powerful voice, she plays the mandolin, guitar, violin and piano extremely well. While the remaining cast members are all equally talented and musically gifted, you find yourself waiting for her next song. She even tackles and succeeds in the tongue-tying “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
When the show was conceived in 2005, RING OF FIRE’s original cast included three couples who represented the various stages in the life of Johnny and June Cash. When it was recreated in 2014, the cast took a different configuration, with the first “new” productions including one or two women and as many as seven backup singers. The Vintage production found six actors/musicians/singers who could convey the story of the Cashes while playing multiple instruments, offering backup for one another and enjoying themselves immensely.
Young Benjamin Cowhick, a well-known local actor (BONNIE AND CLYDE, VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE and ROBBER BRIDEGROOM most recently) takes most of Mr. Cash’s dialogue, and has gently inserted some of his mannerisms in a homage to the singer that doesn’t become an imitation. My only complaint with the show at all was that some of the songs were pitched a little too low for Ben, making it sometimes difficult to hear him. But when the songs were in his range, he soared. Ray Anderson, playing guitars, comes from the concert world; he looks and sounds like the best of Carl Perkins. Eric Weinstein also displays his versatility as a musician and singer while performing and serving as Music Director for the show. All the beautiful harmonies the group achieves are Eric’s work. Completing the ensemble are S. Parker Goubert playing guitar and Kurt Oschsner on drums.
Performing on a set vaguely reminiscent of the Grand Ol’ Opry barn theater, the group in total play more than 30 of Mr. Cash’s songs. They open with “Hurt,” his last big seller, and progress through a montage of gospel such as “Sweet Bye and Bye,” “The Old Rugged Cross” and “The Far Side Banks of Jordan.” These are interspersed with comic songs (“Egg Sucking Dog,” “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” and the favorite, “A Boy Named Sue”) and heartfelt ballads such as Isabella’s amazing renditions of “I Still Miss Someone” and “All Over Again.” The romantic relationship between Johnny and June is flirtingly depicted by Ben and Isabella in songs such as “While I’ve Got It on My Mind,” “Jackson” and “Going to Memphis.”
Whether you thought you liked the music of Johnny Cash or not, you will when you finish listening to this collection of some of his greatest hits. It’s no secret I’ve never been a fan of the genre called jukebox musicals—those that compile music by only one person or of only one type. But the subtlety and sweetness of this script and score and the talent of this cast won me over.
This is an uplifting way to spend a summer evening. Check it out.
WOW factor: 9