Thingamajig’s ‘Ring of Fire’ defies categorization

Photo courtesy Jeff Laydon
From left, Allie Tamburello, Tommy Paduano, Nick Abbott, Steven Sitzman and Rayshaughn Armant in a scene from Thingamajig Theatre Company’s “Ring of Fire” — one of five musicals in its “Broadway in the Mountains” 2019 summer repertory season.

By Bill Hudson
Special to The PREVIEW
The iconic songs of American songwriter Johnny Cash provide the heart and soul of this summer’s Thingamajig Theatre Company production “Ring of Fire” as part of its “Broadway in the Mountains” summer repertory season at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts.
The show is not a tribute concert and it doesn’t attempt to present a direct dramatization of Cash’s tumultuous life and career. The show lands somewhere between those extremes — somewhere that defies categorization into a genre, much like the music of Johnny Cash itself.
“Ring of Fire” is for all musical theater lovers — not just Cash fans.
Theater patron Cynda Green attended the sold-out opening night performance on May 17 not knowing what to expect: “I knew nothing about the show, other than it featured Johnny Cash songs that were never on my playlist. But between the prologue and ‘A Boy Named Sue’ encore, I became a Johnny Cash fan — not just a fan of his music, but of Johnny Cash the man who struggled to understand and overcome his troubled life. That’s how powerful this production is.”
The 2006 Broadway “Ring of Fire,” conceived by William Meade and created and directed by Richard Maltby Jr., has an interesting history. According to Meade, he was one of many who approached Johnny Cash with the idea of putting his music on stage. It took five years, but, finally, and shortly before Cash’s death in 2003, Cash gave Meade stage rights to his material.
In turn, Meade asked Maltby Jr. (Tony awards for “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Fosse”) to become involved as creator and director.
Maltby Jr. said: “When Bill asked me to create a theatrical show out of the music of Johnny Cash, he gave me a stack of CDs and books about 2 feet high (and rising). I listened and read and began to think, and two things became immediately clear. First, we shouldn’t attempt to put Johnny Cash himself on the stage. The persona, the voice, are unduplicatable and the very best we could achieve would be a poor imitation. Second, as interesting as Johnny Cash’s life was, dramatizing it on the stage (it seemed to me) would only lessen, not enhance, it.”
“Ring of Fire” was revamped by Maltby Jr. in 2013 with a “Ring of Fire” Small Cast Edition, featuring five musician/actors.
To quote Theatrical Rights Worldwide, “The new, streamlined song showcase features a cast of five actor/musicians. The remarkable story of Johnny Cash and his music is searing and arcs with an exhilarating concert experience that is unforgettable.”
The “Ring of Fire” Small Cast Edition is what Thingamajig brings to its stage, and it does, indeed, tell the story of Cash’s life — through his music — in an intimate way that draws the audience into the performance.
“Director Christopher Willard made excellent choices in staging this production,” Green said.
Musician/actors Nick Abbott, Rayshaughn Armant, Tommy Paduano, Steven Sitzman and Allie Tamburello play various characters through the years of Johnny Cash’s life, including Cash and June Carter Cash.
“The cast’s live instrumentals and vocal interpretations of Cash’s songs were inspirational and seemed effortless. The song mix of comedy and drama played with the audience’s emotions and kept us engaged — one moment laughing and the next silently mourning Cash’s painful life as poured out in his lyrics,” Green added.
“Ring of Fire” plays in repertory throughout the summer at Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts along with four other “Broadway in the Mountains” musicals — “Mamma Mia!” (now playing), “The Who’s Tommy,” “Jekyll and Hyde, the Musical” and Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland JR.” For more information and to purchase tickets for any or all of the shows, please visit pagosacenter.org or call 731-SHOW (7469).
Thingamajig Theatre Company is an award-winning professional nonprofit 501(c)(3) theater in residence at the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts. Its talented actors, directors and designers come from across the U.S. and around the world to produce musicals, comedies and dramas year-round.

This story was posted on June 10, 2019.