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Musical Walks The Line On Cash's Life, Times And Music

Of the Oakland Press

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The houselights dim and over the P.A. comes the phrase that launched hundreds of concerts and TV show episodes....

“Hello. I’m Johnny Cash.”

Then the lights come up and a series of actors and actresses repeat it, kind of like “What’s My Line” if it was done in Folsom County Prison.

On this night, it seems, everyone is

Johnny Cash.

“It’s a celebration of the man and his music,” explains Mark Minnick, associate producer of “Ring of Fire,” a touring musical that tells the late American music icon’s story, loosely, with a company of 19 and a repertoire that spans his career, from Cash’s early rock hits to his country and gospel periods and ending with a concert-style presentation of his biggest hits.

“It’s not just another ‘jukebox’ musical,” Minnick says. “It’s not musical theater at all. You’re not going to find a character of Johnny Cash or June Carter Cash. The (cast) isn’t doing imitations or impersonations. We’re not landing helicopters on stage or anything. We’re just representing the style and feel of the music.”

And they’re having a great time doing it, according to Scott Stacy, one of the three male leads in “Ring of Fire.”

“There are several times that I think it hits you how powerful his music is,” says Stacy, 38, a Virginia native who sang Cash songs in a band when he was younger. His wife, Della Mason, is also on the road as a guitarist and singer in the company.

“I think for me the most powerful aspect is just seeing the different sides of him, going from funnier types of songs to the prison tunes, some of which are really dark, like ‘Delilah’s Gone’ or ‘Cocaine Blues,’ and then the gospel things like ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down.’

“(Cash) has such an incredible diversity within himself, and the fact he exposed all those different sides of himself is something I don’t think a lot of singers do. I don’t think a lot of people would feel comfortable laying those demons out there like he did.”

“Ring of Fire” overcame a few demons of its own on its way to the road. After woodshedding in Buffalo, the production opened on Broadway on March 12, 2006. It closed a month later.

“My impression was they tried to make it into a New York-style Broadway musical, and that’s not what Johnny Cash is,” says Minnick. “He was an everyman who wrote about things he knew about — passion, redemption, humor, family, love, prison, all that kind of stuff. It’s hard to do all that on Broadway.”

The Cash estate put a hold on the production after the Great White Way failure. But new producers — Marylandbased Phoenix Entertainment — came up with a new way to present it, namely putting it on the road as a touring show and, according to Minnick, “playing it in the Midwest, specifically, and in music towns.”

Minnick says Phoenix also took a different approach to casting for the road show, which kicked off in September in Amarillo, Texas.

“We didn’t want to stick a bunch of 20-year-olds just out of college, which is what you normally get in road shows,” says Minnick, who held auditions in Nashville rather than New York for the “Ring of Fire” company. “We needed people with experience, who have lived a life, who have it in their bones.

“We went to Nashville and found some amazing, authentic talent there. And the two singers we cast out of New York, we found out one had just left Nashville the year before and the other guy was from Georgia, which was interesting.”

“Ring of Fire” also features some of the female actors singing Cash’s songs, which Stacy found a “curious” concept at first.

“I could not imagine how they were going to have female versions of any of these songs,” he says, “but that’s actually been one of the most pleasant surprises of doing the show. A couple of my favorite tunes are the ones by the ladies — like ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down,’ which they do as a trio. That’s very powerful.”

Rescued from the theatrical trash heap, “Ring of Fire” is currently booked into May. Minnick says there’s hope for a longer run, and he’s confident that repeat visits will help the show find its audience.

“We get a lot of presenters saying afterwards, ‘Oh, we wish we did more of a marketing push on this show’ or ‘We wish we did it for another night,’” he says. “When people actually see it, they’re convinced and they love it. It’s not like the other music revues that try to insert cheesy characters or some love story around the music of the Beach Boys or whatever.

“This is just some of the best music ever written. I didn’t know a lot about Johnny Cash before this, and I’m ashamed of that. Now I have a stack of his CDs, and I love ‘em.”

“Ring of Fire” plays at 4 p.m. Sunday (March 30) at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $29.50 and $19.50. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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