Ring of Fire
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 14, 2006
When it sticks to the honorable and worthy business of making a joyful noise, Ring of Fire soars. This new musical, built by director Richard Maltby, Jr., around the songs of Johnny Cash, is loaded with terrific material—tunes, some classic and others less well-known, that are the sounds of a certain kind of America. "Daddy Sang Bass" is a foot-stomping celebration of the importance of music to a big, poor Depression-Era family; "Five Feet High and Rising" is a thrilling, emotional folk song of a devastating flood (suddenly, in this post-Katrina moment, more resonant than it's been in years, I imagine); "I've Been Everywhere" is a rousing charmer, musing on the transient life of the traveling music man. All three—and there are some others—succeed in bringing down the house at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre; they're delivered with purity and unfettered love by Ring of Fire's singularly talented cast of singer/musicians, and they remind us why Johnny Cash was a bona fide American hero—because he sang, freely and feelingly, of the world he lived in and loved.
So it's disappointing to have to report that Ring of Fire loses its way so frequently. Though Maltby and his collaborators are on the right track much of the time, too often they falter, apparently thinking that these glorious sounds won't be enough. So there's a framing device, in which the older Cash (personified without much conviction by Jason Edwards) is looking back on his career; the songs are thereupon "organized" in a more or less chronological order that takes us from Cash's roots in the American South to his early performing days to the Grand Ole Opry and finally to the heights of stardom.
There's also a great deal more distracting scenery than is strictly called for: the cast members seem to rearrange furniture as much as play music sometimes, and the rear-wall projections that have become de rigueur for musicals these days are overdone as well.
Some themes are overplayed. There's a stretch of prison songs in Act II that stops the evening cold: "Going to Memphis" followed by "Delia's Gone" followed by "Austin Prison" followed by "Orleans Parish Prison" followed by "Folsom Prison Blues": enough already. "A Boy Named Sue," meanwhile, is acted out like a miniature Kenny Rogers TV movie: we don't need to see this stuff to understand the charms of this particular song.
The great inspiration that Maltby has had in creating Ring of Fire is in casting it with a flock of remarkable, versatile musicians. Cass Morgan and Beth Malone sing pure country (Morgan gets a great solo moment doing the novelty song "Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart" and Malone teams beautifully with Jarrod Emick on "If I Were a Carpenter") and they can play instruments, too. Laurie Canaan is a mean fiddler and steals the show more than one time during the evening with her lively playing.
Among the men, the aforementioned Emick has the rugged good looks and square-jawed wholesome personality that make him a rare kind of musical theatre leading man; he's always compelling to watch and listen to. Musical director Jeff Lisenby and fellow keyboardist Randy Redd anchor all the melody-making with style; and then there's the invaluable, incomparable David M. Lutken, who can play, apparently, every musical instrument known to man, including parts of his own body at one point; he also sings a neat bass, put to great advantage in the darkly comic song "Delia's Gone." Eric Anthony, Dan Immel, Ron Krasinski, and Brent Moyer round out the onstage band on guitar, bass, drums, and guitar/cornet respectively. The sounds they conjure are magic. (And all can sing, as demonstrated in the many choral numbers in which they participate.)
With such a rich talent pool to draw from, one wonders why some of the best material has been handed to Jeb Brown, the show's least musical cast member. He acquits himself pretty well on "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," handling the story-telling in that song nicely; but his voice is too thin and reedy to do Cash signatures "Man in Black" and "I Walk the Line" justice. Jason Edwards and Lari White, rounding out the ensemble, are similarly weakish links.
Yet all is (sort of) forgiven when Ring of Fire gets its bearings, as it manages to do at both ends of both acts. "I've Been Everywhere," which begins Act II, peformed by the entire company, each with a matching guitar in hand, is as infectious and delightful a show-stopper as anything on Broadway right now. And the affirming chorales of "Jackson" and "Hey Porter," which wrap up Acts I and II, remind us why classic American tunes belong on the Broadway stage. I wish Ring of Fire were up to that standard throughout. But there's a good deal inside this uneven show worth cherishing.