As a Drama Desk- and Tony-nominated dancer (Fosse/Jerome Robbins’ Broadway), Jane Lanier has been on stage with the top hoofers in the world of musical theater. Today, as choreographer/assistant director of the Johnny Cash bio-tuner Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, directed by and starring Jason Edwards (who starred in the 2006 Broadway production), Lanier is finding great enjoyment working with talented performers who are not trained dancers.
“My task is to help Jason keep his vision because he’s onstage, performing as well as directing.Â I worked with him in Johnny Guitar Off-Broadway (2004).Â He was an actor in the show and I choreographed it. He knows, from that experience, that I’m good at making people who aren’t dancers, move well onstage, keeping in the period and projecting the flavor of the music without actually doing big choreography. That’s my main job here, finding staging and steps that look natural, projecting the essence of who Johnny Cash was as a performer, with a little heightened theatricality.”
Sitting in the lobby of Kavli Theatre at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza just two days before opening night, Lanier is quite relaxed, even though she acknowledges the unconventionality of this show. “There are not the usual plot lines that you would find in a book show. We follow the sequence of Johnny Cash’s life and his music without getting into heavy role-playing.Â I was surprised what a huge body of work Johnny Cash had accomplished in his lifetime.Â And that is what we aim to project to the audience.
“We have four singer/actors [Edwards, Kelli Provart, Trenna Barnes, Troy Burgess] who also play musical instruments. They sing the Johnny and June [Carter Cash] songs without actually trying to be Johnny or June. For instance, in the Folsom Prison Blues, we use four singers who each sing a verse of the song. There are also backup musicians who have lines in the show but always in keeping with their tasks as musicians.”
Lanier first choreographed Ring of Fire in 2009 at La Mirada Theatre, also directed by and starring Edwards. She then stayed with the show through its journey to Fullerton Civic Light Opera in 2010 and Arkansas Rep in 2011. The current tour of the show will take it to Riverside for Feb 17-18 dates and then to Denver Center for a longer run.
“So I guess I’ve been with this show for about 2Â½ years with very few cast changes,” chuckles Lanier. “It has been kind of an awesome show to work on.Â At my first rehearsal, I learned that, not only is there no standard book, there isn’t a regular score.Â These guys have no music.Â They just play and they just riff.Â They work out the arrangements and the vocal harmonies among themselves. Our music director, Jeff Lisenby, somehow keeps it all organized and we do the show. Unlike the Broadway production, which had more glitz to it, this is Jason’s vision of the show, putting the emphasis purely on the music. “
Working on a show that does not emphasize dance is far different from the career Lanier once enjoyed as one of the favorite Broadway dance gypsies ofÂ legendary director/choreographer Bob Fosse. Since re-locating to Los Angeles in 1991, she has certainly broadened her creative horizons. As a choreographer and/or director she has guided the destinies of such shows as Cabaret (UCLA), Kiss of the Spider Woman (Musical Theatre Guild), Ovation-nominated Wild Party and Little Fish (both at the Blank), A Little Night Music (Interact) and a score of regional fare. She was working as choreographer in the development of Blake Edwards’ musical Big Rosemary, before his death in 2010.
Lanier has also established acting credits on stage (Interact’s award-winning revival of Counsellor-at-Law), on TV (Mercy, Medium, The Shield, Murder One, Diagnosis Murder) and film (Michael).Â And as a film director, she helmed the short art films Spells (starring John Glover and John Lithgow) and Not Your Time (with Jason Alexander and Valarie Pettiford).
Lanier laughs and notes, “I have been very busy. I also teach at AMDA (American Musical and Dramatic Academy).Â I’m now working with a playwright on a new musical.Â It is just in its first stages.Â A dramatic short film, Touch, that I directed three years ago, has just been accepted into CineQuest in San Jose and the Cleveland International Film Festival. And it just won at Central Florida Festival as Best Short.”
Lanier just smiles when I ask about her dancing. Pushing on, I ask, “Have you stopped doing that?”
“Yeah,” she sighs.Â “I pretty much have.Â The auditions I have been asked to do, lately, I just said no. I like being on the other side of the table now. I love performing but I am now much happier doing the other. The last dancing I did on stage was at the Hollywood Bowl in 2009.Â Donna McKechnie was choreographing the concert version of Guys and Dolls. She called me and asked if I would call Sandy Bergman, Valarie Pettiford”¨ and Kate Wright”¨ and would we perform as the Hot Box Girls. I said, “˜Hell yeah, I’ll call them.’ It was three days work and that was enough. We did “˜Bushel and a Peck’ wearing sunflowers.Â That was my last work on stage as a dancer.”
Lanier, who had also been a longtime member of Interact Theatre Company, has let that go as well.Â “I love Interact but I finally had to leave it last year.Â It wasn’t for any other reason than I’ve gotten too busy. I haven’t been able to be part of anything like that on a regular basis.Â I still produce InterPlay (Workshop) for the kids though. That has always been so close to my heart.”
Lanier has to get ready for this evening’s run-through of Ring of Fire and expresses great respect for the staff at the Kavli Theatre. “We just loaded in here yesterday (Tuesday) and we open on Friday.Â Everyone around here is so friendly and efficient.Â I haven’t worked this fast since I did summer stock.”
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, presented by Cabrillo Music Theatre. Opens Feb. 3. Plays Thurs 7:30 pm; Fri 8 pm; Sat 2 pm and 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Through Feb 12. Tickets: $30-76. The Kavli Theatre at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. 800-745-3000, visit the box office or any Ticketmaster location. www.cabrillomusictheatre.com.
***All Ring of Fire production photos by Ed Krieger