A toe-tapping and soul-stirring tribute to an artist who spans both musical genres and generations of fans will open the Crossroads Repertory Theater season at Indiana State University on June 21.
From the iconic songbook of Johnny Cash comes “Ring of Fire,” a unique musical about love, redemption, home and family. More than two dozen classic hits — including “I Walk The Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and the title tune — paint a musical portrait of The Man in Black. “Ring of Fire” is directed by Brian Maschka, production manager for theater and performance studies at the University of Chicago.
It was Maschka’s first summer stock theater experience that launched a longtime friendship and brought him to Terre Haute. Maschka and Michael Jackson, associate professor of theater at Indiana State and director of production, met as roommates working for Lincoln Amphitheater in Evansville.
From that experience, the best friends overlapped for a time in New York, and Maschka has been in the Crossroads Rep audience every summer since he moved to Chicago. “This is the 20th anniversary of us working together in summer stock theater in Indiana,” he said.
Jackson designed the set, a so-called “theater machine” that transforms for all three Crossroads’ productions this summer. Other shows include “Romeo and Juliet,” which opens June 28, and “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” which opens July 5.
The show is presented in three themes with cutting-edge technology — made possible by recent renovations to New Theater and featuring 30,000 lumens of projection, which is three times the brightness of last year’s performance of “Hairspray.”
“What’s really fascinating is [the show is] in this vein of jukebox musical, which has developed in the past 15 years,” he said. “We do a little narrative, but it’s really focused on the music. It’s not what I would call a typical book musical. It’s more like a cabaret or a concert.”
The first section sets the audience in a barn and features costumes that are contemporary country, casual and fun. “This is when we do the most narrative storytelling,” Maschka said.
In the second theme, “We go to the Grand Ole Opry,” he said. “The set and lighting change, and we nod to both the look and feel onstage at the Ryman Auditorium.”
The third and final theme in Act 2 is “full-out rock and roll” as the performers bring their best award-show formal attire to an arena-style concert. Think The Highwaymen country music supergroup — lots of guitars and everyone on stage at the same time, taking turns singing and backing up each other.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said. “You’ll feel like you saw a story in seeing the show — and you may learn something about Johnny Cash.”
Some dance numbers or “moving tableaus” offer storytelling through movement, Maschka said, similar to how Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out” tells a story with dance choreographed to Billy Joel’s music.
“Johnny Cash is such a familiar American songwriter and singer. His influence spans so many generations,” Maschka said. “I grew up with my parents listening to Johnny Cash’s music, my grandfather was a huge fan of Johnny Cash, and a lot of the young people in the cast love his music.”
The company has embraced the opportunity to pay tribute to an American icon whose work spans the country, rock and roll, blues, gospel and even pop genres. “No one (in the cast) plays Johnny Cash, but everyone represents Johnny Cash because they all sing his music,” he said. “It gives us a lot of freedom for the performers to bring their own interpretation to his music.”
In addition to a talented cast full of familiar faces, Crossroads has tapped Lee Fiskness as the show’s lighting designer. His recent experience includes Steppenwolf, Goodman and Court Theaters in Chicago as well as the Kentucky Opera. Chris Berchild, associate professor and chair of the theater department at Indiana State, has designed impressive projections as well as the sound design, which mixes in some thunder and a train whistle with the blend of the cast voices and instruments.
With numerous directing credits to his name, Maschka produced the 10th Annual Fresh Fruit Festival and the long-running Snake Oil Show in New York. He is a member of the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab and has worked extensively as a stage manager with experience including Broadway’s “Frost/Nixon,” “Chicago,” “Anna Nicole” at Brooklyn Academy of Music and recently three seasons at Steppenwolf in Chicago.
It’s the first time Maschka has directed a play for Crossroads. “I’m so excited,” he said. “I make plays all the time, but I forget how exciting it is when you have a show like this that is really special.”
“Ring of Fire” plays at 7:30 p.m. June 21-22, July 10 and 13, and 3 p.m. June 22-23 and July 13-14 in New Theater on the Indiana State campus.
Flex passes of four tickets, which are good for any show, are $64 each, and single-production tickets are $16 to $20 for general admission. For more information about this summer’s season or to buy tickets, go to crossroadsrep.com or call the box office at 812-237-3333.