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Ring of Fire at Centerstage

Two hours of great Cash tunes

June Carter Cash (Cayman Ilika) and Johnny Cash (Jared Michael Brown) set the stage in Federal Way. Photo credit: Michelle Smith Lewis

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Ring of Fire at Centerstage in Federal Way is wonderful entertainment, well worth the drive. Adapted from the Broadway Production by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Jason Edwards, it is a hybrid falling somewhere between a play and a musical revue. It tells the life story of Johnny Cash through his music. There is no dialogue, but there are a few necessary bits of narration addressed directly to the audience by Cash (Jared Michael Brown) and June Carter Cash (Cayman Ilika). Similarly, there are no traditional theatrical scenes, but there is choreographed movement arranged by director and choreographer Amy Johnson. And how wonderfully the choreography creates visions of train rides and working on the chain gang, of a youthful band auditioning before the great record producer Sam Phillips, and of the beginnings and ends of love.

I was given a hint as to how this musical experience was going to differ from other theatrical productions when before curtain time I asked Centerstage Artistic Director Alan Bryce why none of the actors' character names were listed in the program. In trying to explain, he kept saying, "You'll see. It's different."

For starters, Brown not only plays Cash, he also plays other male characters, including Phillips; Ilika plays June Carter Cash and Cash's first wife, Vivian Liberto. There's also a four-piece band: drums (Zack Summers), electric and acoustic guitar (Sean Tomerlin), bass (Jack Dearth) and acoustic guitar (Tom Stewart) - most of whom also take on the role of Johnny Cash at times. As Bryce said, you'll see. By-the-way, typical country and Western bands back in the '50s and early '60s described such combos as drums, bass, lead guitar and rhythm guitar. Cash played rhythm guitar but was never known as a great musician but as a great singer-songwriter and stylist. Brown does not play guitar in this production.

Brown and Ilika are each members of Actors Equity. Ilika starred as Mary Poppins at Village Theatre and was a Gregory Award nominee, and she rocked the house at Centerstage as Patsy in Always Patsy Cline. Brown recently performed at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, ACT, and Seattle Children's Theatre. They are both terrific singers and actors who pull the audience in, making even a fairly large house feel tiny and intimate. Brown made me feel like he was flirting with the audience, even improvising interaction with them on a couple of occasions when I was there for an opening weekend matinee. Neither tries to imitate Johnny or June, but interpret their songs in their own styles, and sing with power. Brown has a wider range to his voice than Cash but sounds a lot like him, especially when he drops to a lower key.

Some of the band members also take the lead on Johnny Cash songs. Stewart and Dearth are particularly outstanding on the songs they solo on.

Ring of Fire is two hours of great Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash songs, from standard country and gospel songs from their early years to such favorite hits as "Folsom Prison Blues," "I Walk The Line," and "A Boy Named Sue."

RING OF FIRE, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday to Sunday, through Feb. 14., $30, Seniors (65+) and Military: $25; Youth (25 & Under): $10; VIP: $50, Centerstage at Knutzen Family Theatre, 3200 SW Dash Point Road, Federal Way, 253.661.1444, www.centerstagetheatre.com 

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