“Ring of Fire” announces itself as a Johnny Cash musical with its title and plays like a tribute concert or, in the case of the CLO Cabaret production, a showcase for a band of accomplished musicians.
The slight narrative about the life and times of a boy named Johnny are the connecting thread, accompanied by projections that show the Man in Black long before he wandered into Sun Studio in Memphis, Tenn., in 1954. From humble roots to superstardom marked with tragedy, hard living and resilience comes the 32-song program that gives off the vibe of a Memphis live-music venue -- one where a particularly strong cover band is having a grand ol‘ time with the Johnny Cash Songbook.
The arrangements thankfully suit the singer-musicians gathered for “Ring of Fire,” rather than the crossover legend whose work they are taking on. The result is a wave of nostalgia and Americana at the CLO Opry, er, Cabaret.
The cast -- a band of four men and one woman -- offers a wide range of experience and expertise on musical instruments. Director Guy Stroman and music director Chris “Red” Blisset must have had a field day with the possibilities offered by veteran singer-songwriter Jay Hitt, Pittsburgh’s favorite acoustic guitarist in several polls, and Point Park University alumnus Paul Koudouris, who has made his mark in regional theater and has released his own folk-pop album. The relative kids in the cast are Mitch Marois and Jon Rohlf, recent graduates of Carnegie Mellon University and Point Park, respectively, while the voice often representing June Carter Cash belongs to cabaret and stage performer Nicole Stefonak.
There‘s a fine “how do you do” to the humor shared by Johnny and June, and it‘s not just on the familiar “A Boy Named Sue.” “Egg Sucking Dog” is one silly tune, and Ms. Stefonak has fun with Cash’s “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart.” In more serious moments, she and Mr. Hitt are in perfect harmony on “If I Were a Carpenter.”
Mr. Koudouris comes closest to Cash‘s deep bass-baritone on rockers such as “Straight A’s in Love,” and Mr. Rohlf shows a down-home sensibility that was evident as a soloist in Point Park‘s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
Most impressive, though, is the musicianship, as Mr. Koudouris moves effortlessly from electric guitar to mandolin or he and Mr. Rohlf take turns riffing on the harmonica. Mr. Hitt, a singer-storyteller suited to the Cash canon, is equally at home on guitar and banjo, as is Mr. Rohlf. Mr. Marois spends most of the show on the standup bass, and Ms. Stefonak lends occasional drum beats, and through 32 songs, there’s always the feeling of a band that‘s been together for the long haul instead of a few weeks.
The multilevel set by Tony Ferrieri allows each player his or her moment in the spotlight alone and lends an air of country charm to familiar tunes such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line” and the lonely lament “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” The songs are delivered in an order that brings Cash’s life full circle. They are offered with admiration but without imitation, and that’s a good thing, perhaps the best thing, about CLO‘ Cabaret‘s “Ring of Fire.”
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.