REVIEW WRITTEN BY ANDERS BACK
For Digital First Media
It was one of the largest mass migrations in history — and possibly the most tuneful.
Some 40 million Americans left the rural South after the Civil War and went to the cities and towns. They left behind poverty, failed farms, racism and despair. Many arrived on the streets of Philadelphia, Detroit and Cleveland with suitcases in hand and looked up to see the Great Depression barreling right towards them.
The only way to adequately chronicle such a tragic sea change was with music. There was so much music made by those who survived — country, gospel, blues, folk, jazz and eventually rock and roll.
The family of country music legend Johnny Cash stayed on their farm but when he left to pursue his dreams his nostalgia for that hard, fruitful, frustrating life infused his music and resonated with millions severed like him from their rural roots. His songs embraced and enhanced many genres and laid the career foundations for dozens of other successful singers ranging from the enigmatic best (Bob Dylan) to the pandering worst (Toby Keith).
For those who love the astonishing breadth and passion of Cash’s work and anyone who wants a quick history of country music, “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” at People’s Light in Malvern this month is a must-see. It’s a great way to get fired up for the Philadelphia Folk Festival in August.
“Ring of Fire” was created by Richard Maltby, Jr., who brought the world “Fosse” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and veteran producer William Meade as a jukebox musical, a Broadway crowd-pleaser. After sputtering out on Broadway a decade ago the production was reworked by the creators and director Sherry Lutken and is now a summer theater staple.
This is a character study, but hardly complete. The increasingly dark and pensive notes that Cash strummed as he struggled with fame, drug addiction, infidelity and the growing coarseness and violence of U.S. mass culture are barely heard here. But in losing Bad Johnny we are reintroduced to a great balladeer of rural life, a rising music star, champion of the lost, lonely and locked up, all through the amazing energy and talent of nine men and women who succeed for two hours in breathing life back into 38 classic tunes.
While Cash’s classics are covered (Ring of Fire, I’ve Been Everywhere, I Walk the Line, Folsom Prison Blues) the show’s playlist dives deep into the Man in Black’s career to revive some less-familiar gems such as Orleans Parish Prison, Flesh and Blood and Delia’s Gone.
Led by co-director David Lutken who starred in the 2014 People’s Light production of “Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie” this cast of visiting performers displays prodigious talent on guitar, bass, keyboard, drums, violin, harmonica, spoons, metal chairs and even various human limbs. The performers
divide into three couples representing youth, middle age and maturity, loosely grouping Cash’s songs that reflect each phase of his life and career backed by three more multitalented musician/performers. Lutken is paired with experienced backup singer Deb Lyons as the mid-life couple, veteran “Ring of Fire” features Sam Sherwood and Nyssa Duchow as flirting youngsters and Neil Friedman and Helen Jean Russell as the mature duo. Friedman and Russell’s soulful version of Far Side Banks of Jordan amply illustrates how Cash could be both somber and uplifting and turn a simple duet into an anthem of love. Duchow wows on the violin and everyone plays multiple instruments with the enthusiasm of revival-tent converts. Friedman has the deep voice and physical presence to stand in for the late-career Cash in several songs but no one can match the original’s rock solid bass baritone. Lutkin also wisely does not attempt to copy Cash but rather leads this cast in restoring the energy, worldly wisdom and wit of the Cash songbook.
Those expecting note-perfect covers of Cash will be disappointed but this is a reintroduction to Cash, not a tribute band. In another context and writing about another great artist (Dylan), Johnny Cash noted:
“There are those who do not imitate,
Who cannot imitate
But then there are those who emulate
At times, to expand further the light
Of an original glow.”