Steve Coker all the time thought of himself as a “one-man band.” The native theater mainstay, presently helming Johnny Cash bioperetta Ring of Fire, grew to prominence by writing, directing, producing and usually starring in a string of tongue-in-cheek variations (Xana-redU, Flash Ah-Ahhh!) and pan-genre parodies (Varsity Cheerleader Werewolves From Outer Space, The Adventures of Dex Dixon: Paranormal Dick!) beneath the StageWorks banner.
Recently, although, he’s develop into a central presence inside Stumptown Stages’ eclectic sequence of musical comedies, successful Best Actor at the 2019 Portland Area Musical Theater Awards for his Urinetown efficiency.
Coker nonetheless plans on launching StageWorks’ Popeye dwell debut after COVID restrictions canceled its unique run at the final second and fulfilling the potential of his hottest character via further platforms. (After touring conventions with a prototype Dex Dixon tabletop board sport, he’s scheduled an autumn Kickstarter push to assist fund manufacturing prices.) Still, he’s been Increasingly drawn to the comparative freedom these Stumptown collaborations permit.
After Ring of Fire opened to packed homes final weekend, WW sat down with the Oregon native to speak about the stunning ease with which Johnny Cash’s story may be advised via music alone and the implicit challenges of evoking that legendary voice with out descending into caricature.
WW: How totally different is that this from the Broadway manufacturing?
Steve Coker: That was a fairly huge present—in all probability 25 or 30 individuals, perhaps 40 Johnny songs—that took you from his start all the method to June Carter’s dying. Shortly after, they trimmed down to 5 or so performers for a shorter touring model. So, they don’t spend as a lot time together with his first spouse on this manufacturing as they did in the unique, however there’s a couple of songs that take it from when he acquired well-known via his divorce and contact upon how the musicians inadvertently damage the individuals they love as a result of they’ve to depart house. Walk the Line spent so much of time with that, however this present actually simply highlights the bullet factors of his rise to fame.
I keep in mind some field set divided his greatest songs between Love, God and Murder discs. We’re targeted squarely on love right here?
Yeah, and some actually stunning gospel items, too, about the second of loss when his brother handed. Johnny began out singing gospel music. It wasn’t till he tried to make a recording that he was advised gospel didn’t promote and he ought to strive writing love songs.
In the play, at the moment, he comes out to a tune referred to as “Going to Memphis” about his time on a sequence gang. He’d been in a bar battle and ended up in a correctional facility for some time. Although he stated he by no means actually frolicked in penitentiaries, he had a kinship for them—an appreciation for the downtrodden and forgotten—and I feel that have influenced him to start out writing about some of these issues.
Is there a dwell band? Recordings? A combination?
There’s no different musical accompaniment in addition to the actors on stage. They all play their very own devices, and every part’s proper out in the open. They stroll out in the starting with all the devices hanging on the set. Terry [Kitagawa] performs bass guitar all through the present. Hadley [Parrish-Cotton] performs harmonica and acoustic guitar. Illya [deTorres] performs acoustic guitar. And, then, we’ve got our music director and all-over man Adam [Young] on piano, mandolin, violin, electrical guitar, acoustic….
What are the forged members’ backgrounds? Had any of them frolicked enjoying music outdoors of the theater?
All 5 have a combination of each, truly. That was crucial. We targeted on discovering individuals who had each talents. They come from throughout the place. Hadley, who does the feminine roles, began doing theater in Portland with the Star Trek musical improv present at Funhouse Lounge. Terry simply moved right here from New York City as in all probability extra a musician than anything, however he has expertise performing as nicely.
Are they copying his sound?
No impressions, although Dustin [Fuentes] simply has the actual taste of Johnny constructed into this nice nation voice. During the encore, they perform a little of the caricature for “A Boy Named Sue,” however it’s type of anticipated with that tune. We don’t strive and make the forged appear to be Johnny in any respect, you realize. They’re simply in costume—black shirt, black denims, black gown. It got here out rather well, I feel.
Who performs Johnny?
Interesting factor about that—none of the characters in the present are literally named after Johnny or the relaxation of these people. In reality, the character of Johnny’s type of cut up between two of the actors all through the present. Basically, Illya and Dustin bounce again and forth to play him at totally different instances, however Illya serves as the narrator of the present, which actually solely has about six monologues. There’s hardly any dialogue in any respect—nearly no interplay with the viewers by way of textual content. Telling the story via two hours of music with just a bit bit of speaking to transition between scenes, that was the problem, however every part’s tight.
Illya and Dustin cut up the songs down the center?
Any fights over who acquired what?
Oh, God, no. We gave “Delia” to Adam as a result of of the approach we have been directing that second, however the songs have been assigned to the characters in the script. When you get a present from Broadway, you don’t actually have a lot license to alter something. Since they’d already used “Hurt” on Broadway, we felt we didn’t should ask earlier than together with it in our model. Outside that realm, you positively want permission.
How’d you differentiate between the two?
For the most half, it simply works organically. If, you realize, the emotional beat was extra acceptable for a father determine, then Illya would sing. He does all the speaking for Johnny, so you’ll be able to inform that he’s beginning a narrative that leads right into a scene the place the youthful man picks up the dialogue.
And the viewers follows alongside?
[The play] is, weirdly, type of summary, however there’s a connective tissue. Each vignette stands alone as a extremely nice efficiency piece, and the emotional beats actually carry it ahead. Johnny wrote about himself and about the world round him, which clearly helped, and the individuals who put this present collectively actually picked all the proper songs that hit the proper tones for telling the story of his life.
There’s one thing I spotted as soon as we began rehearsing Flash Ah-Ahhh! The trick with making reveals like this work is discovering songs that transfer the narrative ahead with out stopping the motion versus shoving acquainted music into the storyline.
Our reveals made enjoyable of the dialogue, we make enjoyable of the performing, however we all the time respect the music. In previous performances, I’ve been true to the music above all else. That’s the factor right here. The music is tight. There are so much of a cappella moments, and the harmonies are attractive. It’s superb how nicely these 5 performers mix collectively.
Given all of your work with Stumptown, what’s your major function as of late?
I’ve by no means actually thought of myself an actor, regardless that I did carry out so much. My personal firm was largely only a group of mates getting collectively. They all appreciated it once I was in the reveals with them, so we made issues work. It’s really a collaboration. Even as a director, I generally tend to observe performers, see their instincts, and assist pull these ahead.
Delegating some of the steps has to return as a reduction.
As I’ve come out of COVID, I’ve been eager about simply how exhausting it’s to supply my very own reveals. Getting the probability to only act or direct and not have to fret about producing type of introduced again the love for me. It was lastly a chance to indicate the high quality of my work to a broader viewers, and that’s been actually cool. This workforce permits me to only give attention to the actors and assist deliver their imaginative and prescient to life. I designed the units, too, however I didn’t should additionally construct them.
We constructed this previous cabin-shack with a double-level cut up porch that had cool stone work beneath and this superb wood-fire oven for cooking out entrance. It’s based mostly on an image of Johnny’s childhood house.
An precise range?
An precise range. It took three of us to get it up on stage. I needed the set to be as very like his house as we might get away with. Then, the different facet, they constructed up slightly platform that doubles as the Grand Ole Opry and a church. Three panels that appear to be barn doorways are hanging above the church facet, and we throw projections of tons and tons and tons of superb images of Johnny at Folsom and with June and recording at the Sun Records studio. It’s as beautiful visually as it’s musically, with a treasure trove of memorabilia enhances every scene.
Most individuals know the details of his story, proper? Especially after the film?
I don’t assume they essentially do. After speaking to each individuals who knew so much about his precise life and simply his music, I all the time ask if the story’s clear, and they’ve all appeared to comply with alongside and equally get pleasure from. I imply, from gospel to punk, the present appeals to everybody inside that vary. They all have a fantastic respect for Johnny.
Well, this 13-year-old woman sitting near me simply wasn’t into it, I might inform, however all people else has loved themselves. You don’t really feel such as you’re ready to get out of there. It simply strikes, man!
SEE IT: Ring of Fire performs at the Winningstad Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 503-248-4335, stumptownstages.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday and 2 pm Sunday, via June 18. $32.25-$52.25.