By Mary Boyle
If I say, "The Man in Black," chances are you'll know who I'm talking about. Although the roots of Johnny Cash's music are in Gospel and Country, his fans come from all ages and all walks of life, which is why Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash should prove to be a very popular show this season at The Rep's Stackner Cabaret.
Born in 1932, Johnny grew up steeped in music on a farm in Arkansas. Working and singing alongside his parents and 6 siblings in the cotton fields, it wasn't long after he left the farm and joined the Air Force that he started his first band. After his discharge, he married his first wife, Vivian Liberto, and worked a variety of odd jobs while he tried tirelessly to break into the music business. Finally, Johnny got his chance with Sam Philip's Sun Records, and went on to release several successful singles, including "Cry, Cry, Cry," "Folsum Prison Blues," and his biggest hit, "I Walk the Line." Johnny's success continued throughout the 1950's and 60's, playing the Grand Ole Opry and making appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, among other programs, but the success came with a terrible price: a divorce and a drug problem. With the help of his singing partner, June Carter, Johnny overcame his addiction, married June, and enjoyed continued musical success throughout the rest of his life.
Back by popular demand after a sold-out run in 2013, Ring of Fire was created by Richard Maltby, Jr. and conceived by William Meade and adapted from the Broadway Production by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Jason Edwards. Featuring a cast of five immensely talented "quadruple threat" performers who tell Cash's story through his songs, this is one show you do not want to miss! Kent M. Lewis and Corbin Mayer are both Johnny Cash in different stages of his life, and both have the voices and musical skills to pull it off. Alex Keiper returns to The Rep as the only woman in the cast, and takes her turn as all of the women in Cash's life: his mother, his first wife, and June. James David Larson and Paul Wyatt round out the band, playing a multitude of instruments between them, including stand-up bass, harmonica, guitar, mandolin, banjo, violin, and more; in fact, all five performers take turns playing multiple instruments over the course of the show.
Dan Kazemi, a New York-based composer, actor, director, music director, and educator, as well as being an Associate Artist and frequent collaborator at The Rep, is both the Director and Music Director of the show, and just about everything musical this man touches at The Rep turns to gold, including this season's In the Heights and The All Night Strut!, as well as past shows such as Murder for Two, Guys and Dolls, Man of La Mancha, and Dreamgirls.
With so many hit songs to cover, Ring of Fire focuses more on Cash's music, particularly in the first half of his career, without being able to get too deep into the details his life, which is the only disappointing aspect of the production. After Johnny married June, he landed his own show on network television called The Johnny Cash Show, where he crossed generations and genres by featuring musical greats like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, and used his platform to address social issues, such as the plight of Native Americans, prison reform, and the Vietnam War. He was the youngest living inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame and one of only a handful of musicians who was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His career continued to be successful right up until 2003 when, in May of that year, June unexpectedly passed away; Johnny followed shortly after her that September. Johnny Cash remains one of the very few artists to sell over 90 million records, and will likely go down in history as one of the most popular American musicians of all time.
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash runs through May 26th at the Stackner Cabaret, located within the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex at 108 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased by calling (414) 224-9490, in-person at the Box Office, or online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com.
About Milwaukee Repertory Theater
The Milwaukee Rep is the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin, in terms of audiences served, and one of the largest professional theaters in the country. Each year, The Rep welcomes up to 275,000 people at nearly 700 performances of 15 productions, ranging from compelling dramas, powerful classics, new plays, and full-scale musicals in its three unique performance venues: the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio, and Stackner Cabaret. Now in its 65th Season, The Rep has gained a national reputation as an incubator of new work, an agent of community change, and a forward-thinking provider of .vital arts education programs. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Executive Director Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee's rich diversity.