THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY AND JUNE – World-Premiere Musical Opens at La Jolla Playhouse

Another stunning production, not to be missed

In the single digit list of the best possible songbooks for a musical biography, that of Johnny Cash certainly belongs. With such a rich legacy of songs, one might say it would be difficult NOT to come up with a great musical biography. Fear not, in this case Des McAnuff and the creative team has assembled a world-class production worthy of the legacy of Johnny Cash and June Carter. Far far beyond a jukebox musical, this production not only combines a massive number of remarkable songs but assembles them almost impossibly into a coherent structure.

Biographical musicals (like film biographies) face the unenviable challenge of compressing into several hours a lifetime of experiences and characters. The book here (by Robert Cary and McAnuff) does an admirable job introducing various characters integral to the growth of the couple. With brief but crucial stops along the course of their respective lives, the cast portrays the effect of various touchpoints: the death of Johnny’s younger brother, Johnny’s embrace by Sam Phillips (he crucial to discovering and nurturing the careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins) and most importantly June’s role in the most important family of not just country music, but perhaps all of American music.

I wish the pace had slowed down with the introduction of the Carter Family and their seminal recordings in Bristol, Tennessee. One line does stand out, that any song heard on country radio can trace its influence back to these recordings.

Moving the story line forward is the role of John Carter Cash, the couple’s son. As narrator, he guides us through the crucial plot points. It is the most clever part of the production.

Johnny’s tortured relationship with his first wife Vivian sets the stage for starkly poignant songs such as “I Walk the Line,” “Jackson” and “Ring of Fire.” The musical talents of all involved are obvious from the opening prologue, where the orchestra sets the stage and assays several classic songs in instrumental form. Most of the songs are presented chronologically. Trent Reznor’ song “Hurt” is taken somewhat out of chronological order, but is well-placed in the middle of the second act.

We often see the music performed to the invisible audience at the back of the stage, which is an effective technique as the duo move from playing small honkytonks, to the vaunted stage of The Ryman.

Patti Murin as “June Carter Cash” and Christopher Ryan Grant as “Johnny Cash” in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY AND JUNE.

A production such as this relies on its lead actors, and in the eponymous roles Christopher Ryan Grant and Patti Murin are outstanding. Their son is played by the equally excellent Van Hughes. McAnuff directs with aplomb; he has guided previous La Jolla Playhouse premieres to Broadway (Jersey Boys, Big River, The Who’s Tommy), and this musical will undoubtedly be added to the list.

The full cast.

The super titles offer geographic location in a very helpful way, but it would’ve been an easy matter to drop in the relevant year to provide the historical context.

The first act ends with the perplexing question “What do you do when the happy ending comes in the middle of the story?” But the answer is delivered with stunning conviction by the time the audience leaps to their feet at the end of the show.

(Photos by Rich Soublet II)

Tickets available here.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.