The twang is appealing but the theatrics are bland in "Ring of Fire," which has brought the gospel according to Johnny Cash to Broadway.
We're talking about the music associated with this country legend, shoehorned into an odd little quasi-revue that doesn't quite know how to tell the singer's remarkable tale. What's on stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is not biography like the movie "Walk the Line," but rather a vague, impressionistic salute to the Man in Black told hrough more than three dozen of the songs he performed during his long career.
The result is an almost exhausting parade of numbers, delivered by a talented if generic cast and a superb collection of onstage musicians who make the most of every melody. Just looking at the hardworking fiddler, Laurie Canaan, and listening to her play will set your toes tapping.
Yet despite the exuberance of individual songs and performers, there is little momentum to this mild show, created and directed by Richard Maltby Jr. and based on ideas by William Meade. The evening meanders, which is deadly for a journey musical -with the requisite train whistle threading through much of the show's musical soundtrack to remind us we should be moving on.
The songs Cash sang are deceptively simple. Many speak directly to the heart and could be, particularly as he got older, surprisingly dark and reflective. Consider "Hurt," a number at the beginning of the show that looks back on what has happened in his life. "I hurt myself today to see if I still feel," sings an older man (Jason Edwards) trying to get back to what mattered most.
Feelings about family, love and the farm permeate "Ring of Fire," which sketchily follows Cash's career from home to small-town roadhouses to eventually the Grand Ole Opry. The bulk of the material is sung by three couples, an older pair (Edwards and Cass Morgan) and two younger ones: Jarrod Emick and Beth Malone; Jeb Brown and country star Lari White.
Several of the songs are wanly staged as if they were little playlets: a barroom brawl between father and son for "A Boy Named Sue" and a chain-gang sequence that incorporates several numbers including "Delia'a Gone," "Austin Prison" and, of course, "Folsom Prison Blues."
White, in particular, is strong, delivering the plaintive cry of a devoted, love-addled woman in the touching "All Over Again." And there is an easy, homespun charm to Morgan's more maternal numbers. Emick and Brown are the young bucks - Cash in his prime, as it were - who strut and sing with ease. But then Lisa Shriver's choreography is of the elemental, foot-stomping variety.
Quick-changing projections, designed by Neil Patel, depict a variety of rural all-American settings including lonely farmhouses, the open road and the wind-swept sky.
Maltby had great success in the late 1970s with "Ain't Misbehavin'," his joyous celebration of singer and songwriter Fats Waller. Cast with a quintet of unique performers (including Nell Carter), it brought Waller to life as well. In "Ring of Fire," Cash, who died in 2003, remains frustratingly unrealized.
Johnny Cash ain't misbehavin' - and that ain't good.
"Ring of Fire," the new musical that opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore, was presumably intended to do for the Man in Black what the 1987 hit "Ain't Misbehavin'" did for Fats Waller.
Well, it don't - not by a country mile.
For this, Broadway's first country catalog musical - not necessarily a welcome first, at that - Richard Maltby Jr. did what he did with his enormously successful Fats Waller show: He's thrown away the book.
With few exceptions ("Smokey Joe's Cafe," "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris"), most jukebox musicals need a story line, a through-line book.
The ABBA musical "Mamma Mia!" has an attractively goofy story attached, while "Jersey Boys" presents a detailed history of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
But "Ring of Fire" is basically just a Cash-and-carry anthology of an iconic singer who recently had his life, as they say, "made into a major motion picture."
Not able to walk that particular line, "Ring of Fire" offers vignettes of the characters and character of the bluecollar South, some pretty effective, and almost all imaginatively presented.
Luckily, most country songs - and Cash was also eclectic enough to incorporate a little rock, a lot of pure folk music and for that matter, gospel - have a theme or even narrative and this anecdotal element helps the show.
Here, comedy numbers, like Shel Silverstein's funny knockabout "A Boy Named Sue," contrast with some of the dramatic songs, such as "Five Foot High and Rising," inspired by flooding at the family farm he grew up on, and "Folsom Prison Blues."
The show gets an enormous boost from the excellent and evenly matched cast - the men, none of whom attempts that slightly fluttery tone of Cash (or for that matter Joaquin Phoenix), are Jeb Brown, Jason Edwards and Jarrod Emick, while the women are Beth Malone, Cass Morgan and Lari White - and this splendid ensemble is augmented by several fine musicians often joining in onstage.
Broadway theatergoers whose only acquaintance with the Grand Ole Opry comes from Robert Altman's "Nashville" might well be wary of walking this particular line, even if they love Cash's music as much as I do. It might seem like a country mile.
The man in black turns sunshine yellow in "Ring of Fire," the show that strings songs associated with Johnny Cash into an artificially sweetened candy necklace. Though Mr. Cash, who died in 2003, is not himself a character in this latest entry in the jukebox musical sweepstakes of Broadway, his spirit is invoked as a friendly ghost with dimples and a twinkling disposition. In other words, "Ring of Fire," which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, has little to do with the dark, troubled and excitingly dangerous presence that most people remember as Johnny Cash.
If the current bio-flick "Walk the Line" portrays the craggy country singer as a man wrestling with demons, "Ring of Fire" wrestles with a really bad case of the cutes. Personally, I would always pick demons over the cutes for solid entertainment value, but you may feel different. If so, then let "Ring of Fire" transport you to a bygone era — not the vintage years of the Grand Ole Opry or bouncy old Broadway, but the age of "The Lawrence Welk Show" and "Sing Along With Mitch."
Like such perky television revues, which flourished in the 1950's and 60's, "Ring of Fire" assembles a team of clean-cut, anonymously personable singers who dance, mime and, above all, smile their way through an assortment of musical numbers. And like the vocalists employed by Welk and Mitch Miller, these performers have a way of making every song, however different in essence, sound pretty much the same. Even ballads of murder and apocalypse here shade into the aural pastels associated with elevator music.
"Ring of Fire" was created and directed by a man who can be at least partly credited with (or blamed for) forging the prototype of the jukebox musical, Richard Maltby Jr. As the creative force behind "Ain't Misbehavin'," the effervescent Fats Waller revue of the late 1970's, Mr. Maltby presented a dream cast of performers who struck a charmed balance between individual assertiveness and interpretive integrity. By the show's end, you felt as if you knew intimately both Waller's music and every singer onstage. Here, it seemed, was a template for years of low-budget, high-quality Broadway entertainment.
Of course it hasn't worked out that way. Most of the singing scrapbooks that followed in the succeeding decades were either antiseptic, industrial-revue-style fare (like "Smokey Joe's Cafe" or Mr. Maltby's own "Fosse") or karaoke-ish kitsch (like "Mamma Mia!" and a host of imitative clunkers, including the notorious Beach Boys-themed frolic "Good Vibrations"). Productions with the rousing energy and distinctive stamp of "Movin' Out," Twyla Tharp's danced narrative set to the music of Billy Joel, have been in a slender minority.
In form, "Ring of Fire" hovers between the usual singalong and storybook styles. Using songs recorded by Mr. Cash between 1955 and 2002 (many of them written by other composers), the show follows a sort of ages-of-man path from green country-boy idealism into the sloughs of a hard-living musician's disillusionment and on up to the mountains of spiritual redemption. This progression is framed by renditions of one of Mr. Cash's last recorded hits ("Hurt") and one of his earliest ("Hey Porter").
There are six principal performers, including Jarrod Emick (who won a Tony as the Faustian baseball hero in the 1994 revival of "Damn Yankees"). They are aided by a sprightly ensemble of musicians who sing and act when called upon. The central singers don't even inspire the kind of appellations that usually attach themselves to the cast members of such shows — you know, "the sassy one," "the sincere one," "the sexy one." Instead, I found myself referring to them in my notes with descriptions like "Courteney Cox look-alike" and "man with facial hair."
Scene changes are signaled by photographic images (designed by Michael Clark) of Americana — green fields, honky-tonks, weathered white houses — projected onto Neil Patel's wood-paneled rec room of a set. The men do a lot of macho strutting, thumbs hooked in the waists of their blue jeans, while the women tend to feisty prancing. Sometimes they waltz or two-step with each other; sometimes they all join together for a line dance or a hoedown.
There are plenty of plucky male-female duets ("Jackson," "While I've Got It on My Mind"), accented with sexually suggestive movements that might not have made it on to "Lawrence Welk" but would be accepted today unblinkingly on the stages of most community theaters. Novelty numbers like "A Boy Named Sue" are acted out in mugging, winking detail. Gospel songs are given the Broadway hard sell. And moody ballads of love and faith are delivered with the misty-eyed, audience-courting grandeur customarily applied to show standards like "The Impossible Dream" and "Maria."
As Joaquin Phoenix's intelligent, intense performance in "Walk the Line" reminds us, much of Mr. Cash's strength as a performer came from his concentrated stillness, which suggested that he might combust internally any second. Translate this ferocity into big hand signals and grimaces and its power is instantly diluted.
The number in "Ring of Fire" that feels closest to Mr. Cash's style is "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," a gritty portrait of a hangover by Kris Kristofferson, and its impact here has a lot to do with its being free of those adorable interpretive gestures that clutter everything else. It also helps that Jeb Brown (he's "man with facial hair") has a dark, rough-edged baritone that summons Mr. Cash without imitating him.
Otherwise, the number that best serves as this show's theme song is "I Still Miss Someone" (by Mr. Cash and Roy Cash Jr.), performed here by Lari White (the "Courteney Cox look-alike"). Certainly, I was aware of missing someone as I was watching "Ring of Fire." Too bad that person happened to be Johnny Cash.
When you think Johnny Cash, do you think spangles? Do you think ham bone and hoedown, aw-shucks smiles and down-home spunk? If you like your country music slick and shiny, "Ring of Fire," the sparkling new Broadway revue inspired by Cash's song catalogue, may be just the toetapping, clap-along hootenanny for you.
If, on the other hand, you appreciate the darker strains that gave even Cash's corniest novelty songs an inimitable, lived-in texture - you've wandered into the wrong barn dance, partner. No mistake, director- creator Richard Maltby Jr. has done a masterful job shaping a good-time anthology from tunes written or made famous by the black-clad Arkansas troubadour with the voice-of-God baritone. And Maltby hasn't flinched from Cash's outlaw narratives or abject Christian laments so much as he's sewn them into the show's warming quilt of generic Americana.
The show doesn't have a plot so much as a threadbare theme with train travel as a recurring motif and three actors representing various stops along the journey: innocence (the engaging if vocally underpowered Jarrod Emick), experience (earnest, stubbly Jeb Brown), and transcendence (handsome, lightweight Jason Edwards). They're matched with three women who roughly embody similar life stages: frisky Beth Malone, laconic Lari White, and earth-motherly Cass Morgan.
To their credit, these six have convincing country voices, not Broadway belts, and they're supported seamlessly by eight versatile on-stage musicians. The music-making is the best thing about "Ring of Fire." Music director Jeff Lisenby keeps up a persistent rockabilly tick and boom, the vocal harmonies are as thick as hominy, and there's a hearty twang and bounce in the show's guitar-driven step. If the Broadway musical were to receive a full-on countly music transfusion, it would sound pretty much like this.
But the quandary that nags every jukebox musical comes into sharp focus here: Do these songs live onstage? Cash stood stone-still and delivered them with the voice of a man who had hit bottom and lived to tell. The gravity-free "Ring of Fire" not only doesn't sound those low notes; it uses what might be called a karaoke-video aesthetic to illustrate the songs with a reductive of literalness.
So the Shel Silverstein classic "A Boy Named Sue" gets played like a saloon brawl from a Wild West theme park, and Kris Kristofferson's lovely hangover ballad "Sunday Morning Coming Down" finds our hero in a morning-after shambles, swilling beer and picking out his "cleanest dirty shirt." It seems pedantic to point out the obvious, but these songs were not written to be acted on a stage; to watch performers wring them for theatrical meaning this way is to see them cruelly diminished.
As the film "Walk the Line" showed, Cash did spring to life opposite his wife and muse, June Carter, and some of the show's best moments play off this association. The Carter Family-inspired "Daddy Sang Bass" turns a prayerful family dinner into a lively gospel shindig, and the first act closes with a smashing medley of Cash-Carter duets - "If I Were a Carpenter," "Ring of Fire" and "Jackson" - that strikes some convincing sparks between Malone and Emick.
Borrowing a page from the video-game scenic design of "The Woman in White," Neil Patel splashes computer-animated projections across the sprawling cherrywood set. These unimaginative backdrops only accentuate the feeling that we've entered the Grand Ole Opry pavilion at Epcot center. Step right up, folks, if you like your Johnny Cash served with heavy dose of milk and sweetener. I prefer the man black, thanks.
Call it a Lawrence Welk Grand Ole Opry special or a non-ursine version of the Country Bears Jamboree, it's easy to throw water on "Ring of Fire." But that would be unjustly dismissive of the committed performers onstage, who sing and play the hell out of an eclectic selection from the Johnny Cash songbook in this spirited tribute revue. The show's biggest problem is not its thin concept or overstretched length but its incongruousness on Broadway. It's as if a twister had lifted the production out of some red state cornfield and plunked it down on unwelcoming 47th Street.
Will it play in New York? Probably not. Its reliance on Michael Clark's literal-minded projections to create atmosphere -- homey interiors, barrooms, railroad tracks, bland calendar vistas of farmland and countryside -- make this a decidedly low-tech offering for a $100 ticket.
But while the enthusiastic reception to the musical's tryout in Buffalo last fall may have encouraged producers prematurely to bypass the planned second stop in San Francisco and burn a trail to Gotham, Broadway branding stands to bolster its prospects as a touring vehicle, especially in the heartland.
Regardless of where it ends up playing, "Ring of Fire" will appeal more to Cash's traditional country fan base than to the hipsters who embraced his music either late in his career or posthumously, when the scope of his influence and his contribution to American music across several genres had become abundantly clear.
Having more or less built the jukebox mold with his 1978 Fats Waller musical, "Ain't Misbehavin'," creator-director Richard Maltby Jr. knows his way around the compilation format. The show doesn't fabricate a narrative around Cash's songs (as in "Mamma Mia," "Good Vibrations" or "All Shook Up") or paste them onto a biographical skeleton (like "Lennon" or "Jersey Boys").
Instead, "Ring of Fire" attempts to explore the essence of Cash exclusively through thematic juxtaposition and arrangement of songs he wrote or performed, fashioning them into an impressionistic portrait that echoes rather than recounts his life.
Extending his gaze beyond the country music legend's greatest hits to include semi-obscure tracks that will be unknown to all but obsessive Cash fans, Maltby laces the 37 songs and minimal linking dialogue into a fluid, freeform assembly of key themes. It segues from home and family to love, from traveling and performing to hardship and sorrow, from despair to faith, repentance and redemption.
But while the show attempts to cover all bases in capturing a life as well as honoring a remarkable musical legacy, it shortchanges Cash's troubled soul.
Right off the bat, Maltby signals his intention to avoid the straightforward best-of approach by starting not with a Cash composition but with the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt," majestically covered by Cash near the end of his life.
The emotional intensity with which Jason Edwards gouges out the anguish, pain and solitude in the lyrics suggests a willingness to dig beneath the surface. But the song is largely a false indicator. The majority of "Ring of Fire" is so peppy, it makes "Walk the Line" look like a Bergman movie.
Of the six principal performers onstage, interpreting aspects of Johnny and June Carter Cash, Edwards shoulders most of the show's darker and more spiritual shadings. But even a bracket of prison songs manages to be fairly upbeat. Overall, Maltby and his cast present an uncharacteristically rosy Man in Black.
Adding to the sunny slant is the inclusion not just of the immortal "A Boy Named Sue," but of various eccentric numbers that point up Cash's surprising affinity for goofy, cornpone humor, such as "Straight A's in Love," "Egg Suckin' Dog" and "Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart," the latter performed by Cass Morgan during the Opry seg as a Minnie Pearl homage.
Even the potential pathos of a flooded family farm becomes a jaunty prelude to joy in "Five Feet High and Rising," while a bumper crop after barren years is celebrated in the exuberantly silly "Look at Them Beans," gamely performed by effortless charmer Jarrod Emick.
The show's breezy tone is best matched with toe-tapping numbers like "Hey Porter," "Get Rhythm," "Jackson," "I've Been Everywhere" and, especially, a rousing full-cast rendition of "Daddy Sang Bass."
They may turn on the down-home twang a little thickly, but the cast's conviction and verve -- not to mention their robust vocal skills and warm rapport with each other -- go a long way toward countering the show's generic beer-and-sawdust variety-hour feel. (This is far more palatable than the lethally dull Burt Bacharach/Hal David revue "The Look of Love," which was similarly loose in structure.)
Emick's infectious energy makes him the standout, but all the performers are aces, including feisty, sassy Beth Malone; Jeb Brown, who does rascally flirtiness as well as brooding introspection; and golden-voiced Lari White, a Grammy-winning country-Gospel singer making a confident first musical-theater stage appearance.
The musicians also acquit themselves admirably, many of them doing double-duty on vocals in their own solo numbers. Augmented at times by the versatile principals, who also take their turn playing instruments, the eight-piece band does some virtuoso work, notably Dan Immel on bass, David M. Lutken on harmonica and drummer Ron Krasinski, who smacks a mean percussion rhythm out of a metal chair and tin bucket in "Folsom Prison Blues."