by Terrance Mc Arthur
A jukebox musical is a stage show put together from previously released material from a singer (Buddy: The Buddy Holly Musical), songwriter(s) (Mama Mia!—songs by ABBA), or era (Rock of Ages—80s glam rock). River City Theatre Company fills the Reedley Opera House with Ring of Fire: the Songs of Johnny Cash through February 26.
When the show ran on Broadway in 2006, it was organized into three stages of human life, with parallels to the life of Johnny Cash. The revised version takes a more biographical approach. Thirty-two songs sketch Cash’s youth and career. The script recognizes the dark parts, not shying away from his drug and alcohol use, but providing the background needed to understand the man within the performer. The cast of eight takes turns offering stories, explanations, and thoughts for consideration.
The songs range from “Ring of Fire” to “I Walk the Line,” Folsom Prison Blues” to Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue,” and “Daddy Sang Bass” to “Hurt,” Cash’s final hit which opens the evening. You’ll even hear “Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog,” from a novelty album—Everybody Loves a Nut—that was the only Johnny Cash recording I owned (It included “I’m Being Eaten by a Boa Constrictor.”).
Caesar Torres is an intense, compact, powerful performer who shows how close classic country can be to machine-gun-rapid rap. He’s mostly serious here, but his comic timing was one of the pleasures of River City’s recent Wizard of Oz.
Marianne McFarlin has a wicked smile that enlivens the side-splitting “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart.” Coming across as a version of Mimi from the Drew Carey Show with redeeming social value, she swaggers onstage in square-dance finery, petticoated within an inch of being a Macy’s parade balloon.
Chris Giese is lean and craggy, resembling James Brolin, with a steely gaze that bores to the heart of the lyrics of “The Man in Black.” He has traded the near-larcenous manner of Norman Petty from last year’s Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story for a startling sincerity, yet he can harness the macabre twists of “Delia’s Gone” and hang on for the ride.
Jessica Williams is bubbly and talented, mastering tender ballads and teasing romance without breaking a sweat. “Never Got Over Those Blue Eyes” and “If I Were a Carpenter” benefit from her sweet treatment.
Alexis Macedo played Buddy Holly’s wife last year, and now she joins Caesar on “Ring of Fire” and gets plaintive on “All Over Again.” Bethany Houghton, a willowy redhead, has some strong moments on “Angel Band.”
Charlton Hughes, the Tin Man in Oz, turns “Folsom Prison Blues” into a near-drunken confession. He blends well with Williams on their duets.
Mason Garcia has a smoldering look like Star Trek: Voyager’s Robert Beltran or Taylor Lautner of the Twilight films. He talk-sings “A Boy Named Sue” and “Ragged Old Flag,” as well as providing some guitar on several numbers.
Group numbers have a strength that elevates “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” into anthem status and imparts urgency to “Five Feet High and Rising,” as it parallels the story of the Cash family’s battle against a flood.
Photos of Cash at various points in his career adorn the theatre walls, and the women’s dresses provide splashes of color. A hard-working combo gives onstage accompaniment. If you are a Johnny Cash fan, there’s a lot to like. If you aren’t a fan, this show might turn you into one.
Reedley’s River City Theatre Company is located at 1720 10th Street. For further information and to purchase tickets you can go to their website, or call 559-638-6500 or 866-977-6500.
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