“The Man in Black”  (a tribute to Johnny Cash)

--Irene Backalenick

Singer/songwriter Johnny Cash (if one needs to be reminded) is the seminal figure in country music. In a career which spanned almost five decades, he became the very personification of country music—reaching out to people around the world. And his influence went beyond this genre, affecting rock and roll, blues, rockabilly, folk, and gospel. Given such memorable pieces as “Ring of Fire,” “The Man in Black,” and “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” Cash, one might say, represents the very heartland of America. While Cash himself wrote over a thousand songs, he also brought fame to works written by others. And now Scott Keeton pays tribute to Cash in “The Man in Black,” in a return engagement at Downtown Cabaret.

Keetonand his fellow musicians (guitarist Jack Heilaman, bassist Craig Wetz, drummer Bob Gourley and songstress Ashley DePassquale) do fine work, and the beat never lets up. Keeton gives each of his colleagues his or her moment in the sun. Solos by the drummer and guitarists are memorable moments, and the fetching Ashley DePasquale is featured in several pieces.

Yet it is not Keeton, but the Cash music, which is star of the evening. Keeton does not pretend to be Johnny Cash, but, with his deep, melodic voice, he gives fair measure to the legendary performer. Unfortunately, with the loud, fast numbers, many of the lyrics (sheer poetry) are lost to the listeners, as the sound crashes across the stage and into the audience. The softer, more melancholic pieces, with haunting renditions by Keeton, work best.  As to staging, “The Man in Black” is surprisingly limited. While a slide show (with large screens center, right and left) adds something to the show, its effects are only sporadically successful. Flood scenes add to Keeton’s rendition of “Five Feet High and Rising,” prison shots back up Keeton’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and a herd of horses racing across the screen brings added excitement to “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” But, more often, the pictures flashed on the screens are merely confusing. What are the large-scale ads for Dristan and Hertz car rentals all about? Presumably they are meant to reflect the era when Cash had his own TV show, but they are merely distracting. And, in an effort to convey Cash’s deep religious feelings, a stained glass window (with a dove in the center) appears on screen. Is this a nod to world peace?

Nonetheless, “The Man in Black” has its strengths, with its high moment coming at its close. Here Keeton and company offer several encores which include the famed “Ring of Fire.” The audience responds with its highest tributes—rising as one, hands clapping, feet moving rhythmically, bursting into song. At that closing moment, “The Man in Black” becomes an inspired revival meeting.

This review appears Nov. 2009 in the Connecticut Post and on the web site:
nytheaterscene.com

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