Ring of Fire - It’s all About the Music

By Amy J. Barry

Ring of Fire - a musical based on the music, not life, of Johnny Cash - opened on Broadway in March of 2006. It wasn’t well received and closed a month later. But the show, created by Richard Maltby, Jr. and conceived by William Meade, has fared much better off Broadway and on the road, and is currently energizing the Ivoryton Playhouse stage.

The Ivoryton production makes the most of the show’s strengths, which is the incredible musicianship displayed by the cast of nine - who play a multitude of instruments live on stage, including guitar, mandolin, fiddle, stand-up bass, trumpet, drums, and one of the most impressive percussion riffs you’ll ever hear on the back of a folding metal chair. They also vocalize and harmonize exquisitely, bringing together country, rock, rockabilly, gospel, and blues songs that Cash either wrote or made famous throughout his career - a walloping 38 numbers in two acts, one intermission.

The impressive cast is mostly made up of equity actors who’ve performed on Broadway. Eric Scott Anthony, Ring of Fire’s music director and cast member, was in the original Broadway show and in a number of its regional productions.

The performance is not touted as a traditional jukebox musical and its directors Sherry Stregack and David M. Lutken explain in their program notes: “the show has no ‘book’ or linear story to tell. It encourages us to listen to the music and examine the persona; to see them as Johnny did, as the reflections of something more than himself.”

And yet, there is an unsettling sense of ambiguity about what the show is attempting to be: Is it a musical or a concert? Are these musicians acting or actors who are also accomplished musicians?

Perhaps because “The Man in Black” was such an enigmatic character, who had such a huge impact on country music, and has such cross-generational appeal, we want to know more of his biography beyond “his voice” broadcast between scenes, giving us mere glimpses into the soul of the musical legend.

As the play opens, the darker and unexpected side of Johnny Cash is revealed through a haunting rendition of “Hurt,” the Nine Inch Nails’ song, serendipitously covered by Cash to critical acclaim, just prior to his death in 2002.

The show then quickly moves into brighter, lighter, “G-rated” tunes for most of Act I, including a lovely interpretation of the spiritual folk song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” exemplifying Cash’s devout Christianity, a comical “Flushed...(from the bathroom of your heart),” sung by the women, followed by a fun-loving “Egg Suckin' Dog by the men, and the show’s title song, “Ring of Fire,” Cash’s biggest country classic hit.

In Act II, we return to the darker, edgier side of Cash reflecting his later life struggles with alcohol and amphetamines. Musical numbers include the moving, sorrowful “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Delia’s Gone,” describing a cold-blooded murder, and a medley of southern spiritual prison-themed songs with the cast dressed as a chain gang. The music is deeper and more complex at this point revealing more about Cash’s struggles and his humanity, and thus, at least for me, the most engaging part of the performance.

All ends on an up-note with the “Redemption” titled final scene - even if all didn’t wrap up so neatly for Cash in real life with “I Walk the Line”—Cash’s “I’ll do whatever it takes” love song, and “Hey Porter,” his upbeat tribute to returning to his Southern roots.

Even if everything isn’t for everyone, there is something for everyone in the Ivoryton’s well-executed production of this tribute to Johnny Cash—an icon of 20th-century American music.

Ring of Fire continues through Sept. 4 at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton. For tickets, call the Playhouse box office at 860-767-7318 or online at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org. The cast of the show brings the music outside the Playhouse for a down-home hootenanny after each 2 p.m. Sunday performance and invites local musicians to join in.

This review appears in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers and online Zip06.com, Aug. 26, 2011.

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