Review: Pittsburgh CLO Tribute to Johnny Cash

Pittsburgh CLO

One of the coolest ‘square’ places to spend a weekend evening is the CLO Cabaret. Part musical, part performance art, the shows are always entertaining. I’m not hip enough to stay up late for the “Late Late Night” shows and I’m pretty sure I’m banned from the political shows, but we can blend with the older crowd and catch lovely little gems like the tribute to Johnny Cash.

A cast of five (four men, one woman) lift us up for two hours with the nostalgia and power of the music of Johnny Cash (and June Carter Cash.) The cast combines their musical skills with a storytelling component that moves us through the life of Johnny Cash as he shared it via his music. It is all there – the poverty and familial bonds of his hard-scrabble childhood, the big break in Memphis, the relationship woes, the addiction and the bond with his fans. And the spiritual ties.

Pittsburgh CLO
The cast at the end of the performance.

The strength of this show is the versatility of the performers who switch up instruments continuously and tap into different elements of the Johnny Cash legacy. I was impressed with their musical skills and the flexibility as they seamlessly moved from upright bass to banjo to guitar to mandolin. And back again. It kept things fresh as each scene changed.

The other strength was the performance of Erika Strasburg as ‘all female roles’ – she carried the majority of the songs and was just terrific. I was shocked that she was the understudy and can only imagine how the regular cast member must perform. Strasburg’s voice is strong, pure and powerful. Her range was significant and her performance captured the fun essence of a Grand Ole Opry wink n’ nod performance. She poured herself into the songs and the roles (both June Carter Cash and a little bit of Johnny’s mama) without hesitation. She made me believe that she believed in the power of Johnny and June. Erika should be singing in strong leading roles on stage. Make a note of that.

The men weren’t too shabby either. Three (Mitch Marois, Paul Koudouris and Jon Rohlf) are younger while the more established performer Jay Hitt provided some much-needed grit and wisdom to the show. Koudouris burst into the rockabilly Cash persona with a deliberate insouciance, Marois captured a more soulful and sweet side while Rohlf sewed together the fragments with lovely harmonies and musical prowess. Hitt’s steady performance and experience was the show’s backbone. I noticed that he watched Strasburg for her cues during their joint performances, Rohlf was lost in the instruments and Marois and Koudouris were focused on the audience. Hitt brought something that the three younger male performers simply couldn’t offer – the knowledge of living on the road as a musician. There was something about Rohlf (who looks quite a bit like Ron Swanson from the tv show Parks and Recreation) that struck me – perhaps his inner Duke Silver?

The weakest part of the show were the gospel songs. Strasburg and Hitt sang those songs for all they were worth. While I have no idea if they are Christians or believers or what, I felt their faith in the music. Marois seemed most uncomfortable and unable to let these songs inside him. Koudouris and Rohlf were somewhere in the middle. The best numbers among these songs featured the young men on harmony, following the leads of Strasburg and Hitt. It is difficult to sing gospel music especially if you are not fully in character. But it is essential to understand the music and the performers and the spirit that moves them. Says the radical feminist queer woman who can still tear up at the opening strains of  “Sweet Bye and Bye.” The cynic in me would make a crack about hipsters singing gospel music as a lark, but I’m unsure if it was inexperience, lack of familiarity with the genre or discomfort with Christianity at play here.

Covering 30+ songs plus encores in 2 hours is an impressive feat. That’s a bit more than the typical set in a straight up concert setting and switching instruments without stage hands makes it even more impressive. The show moved along at a nice pace and down moments were filled with the voice of  Johnny Cash himself. My personal favorites were “I’ve Been Everywhere” and a saucy version of  “Jackson.”

The CLO Cabaret is a nice little venue. The tickets are a bit steep ($45 each with fees) and the tables are a wee bit crowded. I preselected an aisle table and we arrived early enough to order dinner. The food is provided by Meat and Potatoes and it was decent enough for the price, but nothing amazing considering the restaurant’s reputation. (Note: the deserts are lackluster especially the misnamed “cookie bowl” – good desserts for what is essentially dinner theater should be a must.) The coffee was good. Obviously, they want to sell booze, but we aren’t drinkers so other than laughing at the names of the special drinks and noting that the bartender was very nice – I have not much to offer. I can’t imagine getting caught up in the lobby of the Theater Square parking garage with a bevy of inebriated elders from the suburbs in their rhinestone finery, but someone has to be willing to fork over nearly $200 for tickets, dinner and parking for two. We only did it because it was our anniversary.

Anniversary! 11 years of SueCat!

Accessibility was fine. The online ticket purchase process asked me several times if I needed accommodations and provided me a phone number to a real live person. I was able to purchase a table on the aisle, but it comes with dire warnings that the individual seats at the table are up for grabs by those who purchased tickets. I took a chance that we’d be early enough for me to get the seat that would be least triggering and it was fine. We couldn’t see about 1/4 of the set (the seat front stage performances) but that’s okay as a tradeoff for not being squeezed in at the front. No one searched my bag so I could bring in a bottle of water, but they only provide free water at the table if you open a tab for other stuff. That’s ridiculous. $45 should get you a glass of water if you ask for it. The little things like this create barriers to people with disabilities participating. The Cultural District can do better. Sheesh, the Benedum gives you your own adult sippy cup!

If you were raised on Johnny Cash (of course you were) or you have a newfound appreciation from his covers of modern music (Personal Jesus is my favorite), you might want to catch this tribute. If you park somewhere off-site and skip the food, it is essentially a 2 hour concert which is still a bit steep for $45/person but the quality of this show is equivalent to a live concert.

Note this YouTube clip features Nicole Stefonek in the role of “female” – she’s the usual performer in the female role.

Ring of Fire runs through August 24 at the Cabaret Theater of the Pittsburgh CLO on Penn Avenue in the Cultural District.



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