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A&E Blog

Review: Dark Horse Company Theatre's RING OF FIRE

by Brandon Burt
- Posted // 2012-03-22 -

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

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Post a comment
REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // March 24,2012 at 10:25

Brandon,

Again, thank you for your opinion. It truly is our desire that people be honest and express themselves. My fear upon first reading your review was that it seemed that your general negative opinion of "jukebox musicals" was the driving force of your critique rather than the ability of this particular cast and production team to carry off this style of show (regadless of whether or not it is a style you personally can get behind). Certainly, the "jukebox" format is an enjoyable one for many other audiences, so I would expect that your individual dislike for the genre not overshadow an objective summation of this production's merits. In choosing this show, it was indeed our intent to tap into a broader patronage, while remaining unique and interesting (Ring of Fire is no Forever Plaid). Thus showing that we have something to offer to a wide variety of tastes. In my above comment, I did not intend to downplay any prior Dark Horse production, certainly! I stand behind all of our shows, and Reefer Madness was indeed a favorite of mine as well. We hope and plan to do more like it, but as I said, we also don't want to limit ourselves in our choices.

Thank you to you and City Weekly for your support of our continued efforts to challenge the status quo and theatrical convention.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // March 22,2012 at 13:52

Brandon,

While I appreciate your enthusiasm for what you have assumed is our proclaimed schtick (that of satirical camp and cabaret), you may derive a more enjoyable experience from our offerings by trying to receive them with a clean slate rather than comparing them to one particular show or genre that you had a good experience with before. Ring of Fire is definitely not something like what we've offered in the past, but actually, no two of our prior productions do have much in common with each other. The point here is that we would rather not pigeon hole ourselves into one small little niche of the musical theatre palette. If we were to do a "satirical campy cabaret" each time, we'd either run out of interesting material to choose from pretty quickly, or we'd simply become passe. Our audience would get tired, and we would fall flat. Luckily, this is not our mission. Our mission is to provide the Wasatch Front with new and interesting musical theatre offerings with a variety of themes and styles. The idea being it will be something you haven't had the chance to see before around here. :) It may be controversial, it may be risque, or it may simply be an unknown gem, but you can be guaranteed it will be entertaining, and professional, because we don't do anything less. Again, thank you for your honest opinion, and please continue to try us out, because there will be no shortage of surprises from future Dark Horse Company Theatre productions.

Sincerely,

Gamyr Worf

Executive Producer

Dark Horse Production

 

Posted // March 24,2012 at 04:53 - Gamyr,

You make some good points. Obviously, Dark Horse does not wish to relegate itself to any single genre or "schtick," as you say (although it saddens me to hear you thus downplay the effervescent brilliance of "Reefer Madness," which for me was a life-changing experience).

I'm sorry I had to report being so profoundly disappointed by this production. Surely you must have noticed, however, that the performers (in the popular "American Idol" parlance) are "pitchy," particularly during the early Act I numbers "Country Boy," "Flesh and Blood" and "While I've Got It on My Mind."

This is something I intentionally omitted from my criticism, because (ask anybody) I am a generous reviewer, and the last thing I want is to be mean.

The thing is, "Ring of Fire" is first and foremost about music. Perhaps I object most to the way Maltby et al structured the show.

I apologize for suggesting that Dark Horse should restrict itself to camp and cabaret -- although I must say that this would not at all be a bad thing. So few troupes do it well these days, it is practically a dying art.

 

 
 
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