The “Ring of Fire” show coming to CLO Cabaret walks the fine line between echoing the life of someone as well known as Johnny Cash and telling an everyman, slice-of-Americana story.
The late country-rock legend is never referenced directly, but his presence — like his songs — pervades this jukebox musical.
Guy Stroman is perhaps best known as an original Plaid of the “Forever” variety and in Western Pennsylvania as a director with both the CLO Cabaret and Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown. The show is his first experience with “Ring of Fire,” although he has seen other productions and is fully aware of the show’s checkered history.
“This play has an interesting genesis,” he said. “It came to Broadway with a much larger concept — more cast members, a full orchestra — and did not play well because of that. The key for me, what ‘Ring of Fire’ needs to be, is story theater done in a concert setting.”
The cast has been whittled through successful regional shows down to five singer-musicians. The structure has Cash songs each representing a scene, like patches in a quilt. For instance, “While I’ve Got It on My Mind” becomes a scene of keeping love alive in middle age, and family members share a meal and music to “Daddy Sang Bass.”
“This show is a tribute to Johnny Cash’s life and music,” Mr. Stroman said. “All the great songs are there — “Ring of Fire,” “Man in Black,” “I’m Going to Jackson,” “I Walk the Line” — his catalog done in very authentic ways by five actors who happen to be very good musicians.”
At an early rehearsal at the CLO Academy, the cast was gathered in a tight ring of chairs and instruments to run through a medley with Mr. Stroman and musical director Chris “Red” Blisset.
When he took the gig, the director insisted on having the redhead in the room.
“He has done about half a dozen productions of ‘Ring of Fire’ when it was seven people — now it’s five. He understands this music and he teaches this music and style,” the director said.
“The thing to remember is that no one is imitating Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Trio,” he continued. “We’re really tailor-making it to the fact that these are balladeers, in the old sense of the word, that tell the story of this American icon, with his demons and joys and loss. They tell it in the context of the music and directly relating to the audience.”
The performers are local acoustic guitar master Jay Hitt (“Always … Patsy Cline” for Pittsburgh CLO) and rocker Nicole Stefonek, plus a trio from local colleges: Jon Rohlf and Paul Koudouris of Point Park and Mitch Marois of Carnegie Mellon.
Santino Tomasetti, who understudies all the male roles, was Mr. Stroman’s hero on this day.
While Mr. Marois fulfilled his Senior Showcase obligation in Los Angeles — arriving for rehearsal after taking the red-eye back to Pittsburgh — Mr. Tomasetti filled in for a KDKA appearance.
“Santino went and rented himself a bass a couple of months ago, and came in playing the bejesus out of it,” Mr. Stroman marveled.
Watching the group of strangers become a band has been one of the pleasures of pulling together the pieces that form “Ring of Fire.”
Mr. Stroman marveled when he first saw Jon Rohlf, who played the band leader in Point Park’s “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”
“At auditions, he brought in a resonating guitar, which is an acoustic guitar that has a metal plate in the middle of it, and you can work slide on it. And he had his harmonica around his neck and he was carrying a mandolin and a banjo, and he’s about 5-foot-6 inches tall. So he looked like this bluegrass one-man band. He’s even brought me a washboard from his grandmother, because they played that music. So he grew up with all of this,” the director said.
Tony Ferrieri’s set design aids quick-changing scenes and instruments using what the director describes as a series of deconstructed porches done in barn wood. It has railings at different levels, giving the director playing spaces “without ever having to re-enact some sort of scenario.”
The railings also serve the purpose of stands to leave and retrieve instruments, all connecting in the way that only a Johnny Cash song can.
“The idea is to find a way to communicate so that the spoken word creates the same kind of images the lyrics do,” Mr. Stroman said. “So basically by the end, you’ve woven the fabric of this very American story. Johnny Cash built this myth about himself. He really was a cotton farmer and he worked in the Ozarks in 1934, and his little brother was killed in a farming accident, which devastated him. He started listening to Eddie Arnold and Jimmy Rogers on the radio, and he thought, ‘I can do that.’”
From those humble beginnings, he went from roots rock to country icon and folk balladeer on a grand scale, fighting demons until he was saved, as he put it, by his wife and collaborator, June Carter Cash.
As in real life, you’ll see a love story in there, but it’s not all romance and tragedy. “A Boy Named Sue” gets its due, too.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.