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Ring of Fire

Richard Maltby, Jr. has concocted a show that Cash-es in on the catalogue of an iconic songwriter. logo
Cass Morgan, Lari White, and Beth Malone in Ring of Fire
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Johnny Cash fever is sweeping the country! First, there was the film Walk the Line, for which Reese Witherspoon won the Oscar (among other awards) in appreciation of her portrayal of June Carter Cash, while Joaquin Phoenix's equally strong Johnny Cash impersonation failed to take home the gold. Now, on stage, there's Ring of Fire, for which the decision was made to have no designated Cash figure walk the (chorus) line -- even though the males in the cast wear a lot of black.

Conceived by William Meade, and created and directed by Richard Maltby, Jr., the show has a cast of 14 singing Cash's chart-toppers as well as some lesser-known numbers. Maltby, who has acknowledged that he knew little of the Cash oeuvre when he got the offer to do the show, has thumbed through the icon's catalogue for repeated and related themes that would point him in one story-telling direction or another. In the end, he decided that 38 of the myriad songs that Cash wrote and/or performed could be arranged to suggest the lives of three couples living under one roof in an isolated rural house. (Neil Patel did the simple set, the focal features of which are two floating walls on which are projected Michael Clark's version of flatland exteriors and interiors; Ken Billington is the lighting designer, Peter Fitzgerald and Carl Casella of Movin' Out are the sound designers.)

As the songs pass by, the three sometimes mawkish couples -- or is it one couple shown at stages of a shared life? -- fall in love, test that love, spend time apart, land in jail (hey, this is the "Folsom Prison Blues" man whose songs are being sung here), weather bad crops, get religion and keep it. They also perform in a segment set in -- wait for it! -- the Grand Ole Opry. This isn't surprising in a production celebrating Johnny Cash, and the religious leaning shouldn't be, either. It's a significant part of the man's biography, though it wasn't stressed in Walk the Line and is therefore all the more striking in Ring of Fire.

Also unsurprising is the facility with which the cast performs the songs. Most of the numbers are stingingly sung by Jason Edwards and Cass Morgan as the older couple, Jeb Brown and Lari White as the more or less middle-aged couple, and Jarrod Emick and Beth Malone as the younger couple. (Morgan took on a similar assignment a few decades ago in another musical with little or no plot, Pump Boys and Dinettes. She's practiced at the genre.)

But the six focal singers, seizing every acting opportunity that the pithy ditties provide, are not the only ones here bursting with talent. All 14 members of the troupe play instruments -- and only some of them are the band members. The second act opens with all 14 working guitars in "I've Been Everywhere." Multi-talents like Randy Redd, often found at one of the two onstage keyboards, also get a go at the center-stage spotlight. The entire cast two-steps and line-dances to Lisa Shriver's choreography, though the staging of both the title tune and I Walk the Line is disappointing.

It might be easy to dismiss this show as yet another "jukebox musical," but since Maltby is involved, maybe that term needs reexamination. After all, it could be said that it was Maltby, creator and director of Ain't Misbehavin' (1978), who's responsible for setting so many of the more recent theatrical catalogue studies in motion. Back then, such shows were called revues -- a genre that Broadway supposedly welcomes no longer. "Revue" is also a word that Maltby says he dislikes because it connotes a collection of songs performed in a non-theatrical style. The truth is that most of these musicals, no matter what they're termed, are simply cashing in on the popularity of the material. The only thing that distinguishes Ring of Fire from the rest of the mediocre pack is that it's literally Cash-ing in.

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