Dark Horse Company Theatre is a victim of its own success.
Its spectacular 2010 production of Reefer
Madness set the bar so high, it would obviously take some time before the plucky Park
City-based troupe could ever manage to top it. And, unfortunately, that time has not yet arrived.
It's not for lack of talent or ambition; Dark Horse has both in spades. It's just that Ring of Fire is exactly the wrong material for a theater company whose bread-and-butter is satirical camp and cabaret. The music of Johnny Cash must have looked like a good match on paper -- "Daddy Sang Bass"? "A Boy Named Sue"? He had some funny, over-the-top stuff.
But Cash, big-hearted as he was, was too much a troubled, brooding poet for his songs to translate well into a cabaret show. The cast smirks through dark narrative tunes such as "Delia's Gone"; they channel Glee in a weirdly singy-dancey rendition of "Five Feet High and Rising."
The production and lighting design are all over the place, as if to squeeze maximum possible use out of every last available piece of equipment: Unflattering color gels? Of course! Smoke machine? Why not? A geometric gobo lightshow? Sure, throw that in, too.
Projection-surface backdrops are all the rage nowadays, and -- with careful, sensitive planning -- they can be applied to great effect (as with the Babcock's recent production of Rare Bird). But the technology can also be abused: The random sequence of images used during Ring of Fire's "I've Been Everywhere" finale look like an iPhoto slideshow pulled from some producer's photo library, and even the bucolic scenes of flowing rivers and falling autumn leaves used to illustrate Cash's backwoods upbringing in Act I come across as obvious and overly precious.
Still, it is the Dark Horse performers who offer the brightest lights in the production: The rhythm section (Mason Aeschbacher on drums and Adam Overacker on bass) turn in a faultless, professional performance, while the fiery Ginger Bess on piano and ukulele is delightful as always. Daniel Simons (guitar/banjo/tambourine/harmonica) and his sideburns are the closest we get to The Johnny Cash Experience the audience really wanted, while Ricky Parkinson's omnipresent stage persona and Christopher Glade's swaggering bravado carry the show through its most difficult moments.
To be fair, most of the production's drawbacks are not Dark Horse's fault, but due to the book itself. As a jukebox musical, the most Ring of Fire could ever hope to be is a revue of popular songs strung together by a loose narrative. Fair enough; that's the state of the art these days. But, in this case, the connecting narrative -- a putative biography of Johnny Cash -- is anemic even by jukebox-musical standards. The storyline omits many important events in Cash's life: From Act I, you'd never know he was already married to Roseanne's mother, Vivian, when he met June Carter. And then, halfway through Act II, the Ballad of Johnny peters out entirely.
If Ring of Fire is a failure, it is simply a failure of selection. We know that Dark Horse is capable of much better work. So how can the company redeem itself? Perhaps by staging a production that is much more up the troupe's ironic, showy-singy-dancey alley, something like, say, a Kander/Ebb/Fosse show. And, as luck would have it, Chicago is just what Dark Horse is doing in July. We've got our fingers crossed.
Ring of Fire: The Songs of Johnny Cash @ The Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main Street, Park City, March 16-25, ParkCityShows.com