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Monday, August 25, 2014

'Johnny Cash' onstage at Barter Theatre

The cast from Ring of Fire:  The Music of Johnny Cash, now on stage at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia.  From left are Mark T. Baczynski, Emily Mikesell, Katie Deal ("June Carter Cash"), Jason Petty ("Johnny Cash"), and Gill Braswell
For all Johnny Cash (1932-2003) music lovers, the show now playing at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, is one they will like.
The Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA/Photo by Patricia Leslie

Rather than a musical, it's a posthumous concert featuring many of the star's hits, but not enough to enliven the first act which includes lesser-known tunes.

Jason Petty is an outstanding "Johnny" who looks, talks, and realistically brings back the "Man in Black," with a quick journey through Johnny's life told in words and song.  (It's unclear if Johnny Cash actually said or wrote the lines attributed to him in the presentation.)

Strangely absent are "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," "Understand Your Man," (Ghost) "Riders in the Sky," "Orange Blossom Special," and "One Piece at a Time,"  replaced by songs not as well known like "Straight A's in Love," "Delia's Gone," "Cocaine Blues," and "I Still Miss Someone."

Closing the first act is bathroom humor (yes, it is) with "Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart" and "Egg-Suckin' Dog" received enthusiastically by the audience which is finally rewarded with "Ring of Fire" sung in excellent harmony by "Johnny" and his bride-to-be, "June Carter Cash," the lovely, dashing Katie Deal who delivers an exceptional performance.

The second act takes off with music by the multi-talented cast which presents “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues, ”  "A Boy Named Sue," and "Jackson," among others.

Stationed on stage the whole time are Steve Sensenig on keys and David Streng on drums.  Their presence and instruments are distracting, but perhaps designed to fill half the set which does not vary from a framed barn, with the exception of the backdrop of photographs which change from farmland to sky to clouds, etc., in a tired technique now commonplace in many productions. 

Other musicians, Mark Baczynski and Gill Braswell, have speaking and singing parts, but when they pull and strum the strings on their guitars and bass, those undeniable talents  take over.

Meanwhile, Ms. Deal and Emily Mikesell, Johnny's "mother" and "Minnie Pearl" and bassist extraordinaire and fiddle player to kill, almost steal the show, sometimes overshadowing the star who seems almost listless at times.  But, perhaps that's the way "Johnny" really was. 

Throughout the production, "June" gazes longingly at her man with stars in her eyes, and their warm relationship translates well on the platform to produce a genuine bond. 

Period costuming (by Howard Tvsi Kaplan) refreshes the show periodically.

People pay for what they want to hear and why producers don't give it to them is perplexing. Since Johnny Cash is dead and not likely to bring out any new hits which some stars (Bob Dylan) like to introduce to fans (most of whom don't want to hear them), why not replace the lesser-knowns with Johnny's biggest numbers, the ones people know and love, the ones they come to hear?

Ring of Fire lived a short life when it opened in New York in 2006, but Variety predicted better success for the play when it moved to its country fan base which certainly includes Abingdon, Virginia.
The Barter Theatre, Abingdon, VA/Photo by Patricia Leslie

Ring of Fire was created by Richard Maltby, Jr., conceived by William Meade, and adapted from the Broadway production by Richard Maltby, Jr and Jason Edwards. Other members of the Barter Ring of Fire production team are Amy Jones, director and musical director; Andrew Morehouse, lighting designer; Derek Smith, set designer; Miles Polaski, sound designer; and Kristy Goebel, stage manager.

For more reviews of other plays in the region, go to DC Metro Theater Arts.

WhatRing of Fire:  The Music of Johnny Cash

When:  Now through September 6, 2014

Where:  Barter Theatre, 127 West Main Street, Abingdon, Virginia 24210.  From Washington, drive out I66 West and down I81, about 5.5 hours if you don't stop to eat, and look out for the state troopers, lined up along 81, comparable to crocodiles ready to pounce and bite speeding motorists.

Tickets:  Start at $34.  Call 276-628-3991 or purchase them on the Web.

Note:  The Barter runs simultaneous plays, and you may also want to see Driving Miss Daisy.  Check  the listings on the calendar.

For more information:  276-628-3991

Accommodations:  Prices in Abingdon range from the plain to the fancy.  There's the lovely, quaint "fab 50s" motel on the hill at Exit 19, the Alpine, with old-fashioned but newly modernized huge rooms, and lawn chairs outside each door for guests to use for gazing a spell at the peaceful hills and farmlands.  Mountain air arrives in rooms via open windows.  If it's fancier digs you prefer (with ghosts), check out "The Martha" (as in "Washington"), across the street from the Barter.  Built in 1832 for a general's residence, it became a woman's college until it was overtaken by the Great Depression, which was the same time the Barter opened.

"The Martha" is one of several places in Abingdon which offer theatre packages. ("Martha's" start at $445, and it's a good deal.)   

A room with a view at the Alpine Motel, Abingdon, VA/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The "fab 50s" Alpine Motel with bush-covered sign on the hill, Abingdon, VA/Photo by Patricia Leslie
"The Martha,"  Abingdon, VA/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The sitting area for the suite below at "The Martha," Abingdon, VA/Photo by Patricia Leslie
A suite at "The Martha," Abingdon, VA/Photo by Patricia Leslie
The library at "The Martha," Abingdon, VA/Photo by Patricia Leslie

Abingdon was founded in 1776, and Wikipedia says it was likely named after Martha Washington's ancestral home in Oxfordshire, England. The U.S. town lies about 20 miles north of the Tennessee border above Bristol and prides itself on its old homes, historic shops, and tree-lined streets whose light posts hold baskets of flowers which fall gracefully to the streets.  Abingdon has good places to eat, see, browse, and visit, including a gentle nearby mountain trail, the Virginia Creeper, which is an easy delight to bike or walk down.

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