La Jolla Playhouse Opens New Season with the World-Premiere Production "The Ballad of Johnny and June"

A Trampled Love Story Rooted in a Popular and Beloved Soundtrack 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

Christopher Ryan Grant and Patti Murin in THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY AND JUNE; photo by Rich Soublet II.
Oh, I love me some Reese Witherspoon, and curiously, Walk the Line is one of her movies that I have yet to see. Life is weird sometimes and when you are in the performing arts, even more so. That movie released almost 20 years ago could be one of the main references for country superstar couple June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash. In the case of La Jolla Playhouse's season opener, The Ballad of Johnny and June, a bio-like piece with music that includes the couple's only son's perspective on how their relationship happened once both of them were famous, with kids, and partners... and the journey of that combined fame with its ups and downs until the end. 

The book is by Robert Cary and Playhouse Director Emeritus, Des McAnuff who also directed the piece, music, and lyrics by Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, and others with orchestrations and arrangements by Lisa LeMay. The visual component of this production is great, carefully crafted with Robert Brill's scenic design that reminded me of both a boxcar and a wooden hangar that opened and closed. Curiously, the colors are earthy browns, ambers, and yellows just like Sarafina Bush's costume design used for practically all of the characters, except for Cash who frequently wore black. I loved that because the earthy colors give it that country look and the contrast between the browns and the black contrasts Johnny and June, nicely accentuated by Sean Nieuwenhuis's projections.

Christopher Ryan Grant is on point as Johnny Cash with the attitude and mannerisms all the way to how the singer stood and held the guitar. Van Hughes plays an adult John Carter Cash who also serves as narrator guiding the audience through Johnny's beginnings with his family as well as his mother June, going in and out of the story to insert himself in the narrative. This dynamic might be confusing because the timeline goes back and forth, but I found it entertaining just like when any of us talks about a parent's life in a reunion, that is how this piece felt. Like a reunion where stories are shared along with music, laughs, and mixed feelings. 

The cast of La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY AND JUNE; photo by Rich Soublet II.
Patti Murin made June Carter Cash her own giving a nice combination that balanced her histrionic personality with the country singer's flare resulting in a spunky, and very pleasant character that -only based on interviews I have seen while growing up and the reference of June I had in my mind-, I almost liked more. Alberto “Albee” Alvarado's wig design had a variety that was natural and fitting.

I felt that June's ending was sort of abruptly placed and did not have the same setdown as the Johhny or John Carter characters. Seeing the glass half full, this lent a nice dynamic for me and my row-mates as we googled the facts during the intermission so we could conclude better. 

There is an orchestra in the back dressed in all black with fabulous musicians with Ron Melrose in the music supervision along with Conductor Lisa LeMay also on the keyboard, Joe Payne, and Lorraine Hussey on guitar, Ken Dow on bass, Kevin Dow on drums, and Joe Harris on the trumpet with actors also playing instruments, Maddie Shea Baldwin as June's sister “Anita,” Paula Leggett Chase as “Carrie,” Drew Wildman Foster as “Carl Smith/Jack Cash/Marshall Grant,” Gabriella Joy as “Vivian,” Bart Shatto as “Ray Cash/Sam, Phillips/W.S. Holland,” and Correy West as “Luther Perkins/Rip Nix,” which gives the musical aspects of the piece an organic, natural feel nicely placed and landed by Peter Fitzgerald's sound design that was clear and with the right power that allowed for songs like Jackson, Folsom Prison Blues, and the controversial Ring of Fire, and the title song written for this show The Ballad of Johnny and June”, go smoothly like butter.

Carter and Cash's relationship came from creativity, singing, and the working relationship, turned affair, turned marriage and family, seasoned with addiction and trips to jail. For people who lived through the sixties and seventies, this will be a cool glance through those memories, and for those who did not get to experience those times, learning about them through the stage, is also a very cool glance that encompasses all sorts of feelings that are not only fueled by the story itself, but by the creative elements in the production like Amanda Zieve's lighting design that matched the sets colors along with the wardrobe adding this live concert feel to the theatre space that kept the boards essence.

Because of the googling during intermission, row-mates and I caught that it seems Cash was not fair between his daughters from his first marriage and his son with June. Hopefully, this production will approach all the Cash siblings. That's the human -not the critic- view on the matter.

What the musical did illustrate clearly, was the love the couple had for each other until the end. Currently playing until July 7, for performance times and ticket process please click here

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