Ring of Fire Burns Brightly for Johnny Cash

Jim Norrena, ACT OUT Photography Daniel Barrington Rubio owns his Johnny Cash solos in Altarena’s Ring of Fire.

Altarena Playhouse lights up the East End with its latest offering, Ring of Fire, a musical revue of Johnny Cash tunes that also tells his life story in broad strokes. The show uses a cast of two men and two women, each singing in turn, representing Cash’s father, brother, mother, wife and self, plus backup singers, as the song demands. With a repertoire ranging from light and cheerful to dark and brooding, the show captures the essential points of Cash’s career.

The cast features Anya Absten, Kate Metroka, Eric Carlson and Daniel Barrington Rubio. Of the four, Absten and Carlson work best together as a duet, while individually, Metroka has the best female solos and Rubio, with his rough bass, best embodies the soul of Cash. Each has a turn in the spotlight and all four, making their Altarena debuts, show versatility, spirit and charm. Carlson’s songs are sweeter, Rubio’s darker; Absten and Metroka both portray June Carter as well as Cash in some of his most evocative songwriting. They all capture the sorrow, rage and impotence in a gifted man’s heart.

With a simple set, mostly empty to leave room for an impromptu two-step and general tomfoolery, the actors are free to embody the essence of Cash without having to rehash the movie script for Walk the Line. 

As the program notes explain, the revue is not a narrative but “glimpses of the world Cash lived in — of home and family and the land; of hard work and adversity; of faith and love and compassion for people who lead hard lives or are down on their luck.” Cash’s origins — the loss of his brother, the family’s hardscrabble farming, floods, picking cotton — and personal demons: alcohol, cocaine, prison, heartbreak — come to life in Altarena’s production.

The stage band is to be commended — musical director Rachel Robinson leads on piano, with Lily Sevier on drums and Mike Smith on guitar. So many songs really hit the mark; favorites include Rubio’s take on “A Boy Named Sue” and the showstoppers before intermission, “Ring of Fire” and “Jackson.” Don’t be afraid to sing or clap along; as a tour of Cash hits, Ring of Fire is super; as an evening of theater, it’s well worth your time.

Opening night was sold out; book tickets soon to enjoy the show: www.altarena.org for tickets and information. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Altarena Playhouse is located at 1409 High St. Call 523-1553 or visit the website for tickets.