Ring of Fire
Richard Maltby, Jr. has concocted a show that Cash-es in on the catalogue of an iconic songwriter.
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.