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St. Louis by Richard Green

Ring of Fire
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Also see Richard's reviews of Becoming Dr. Ruth, Reality and Eat Your Heart Out

Jason Edwards, Allison Briner, Trenna Barnes,
and Derek Keeling

It's the time of year when movies seem to get more serious (because of the Oscars) and plays seem to get more silly (to compete with everything else on your holiday calendar).

But most important of all, the other Equity theater in town (Stages St. Louis) recently finished a 723 thousand-year run of the delightful Always ... Patsy Cline at a satellite venue in Westport. Of course, Ms. Cline had the good sense to die young in a plane crash and leave behind a legacy made up almost entirely of great records, with no particular life story to grapple with. So a show featuring Patsy Cline's music could pretty much be anything its creators wanted it to be.

And that brings us up to the present moment. In the wake of one musical cash-cow, along comes another countrified show, with an equally tenuous storyline: Ring of Fire at the Rep, about Johnny Cash and—well, stop right there. "About" and "Johnny Cash" should probably each be rendered in quotation marks.

I don't know a lot about country music, but I do know that Mr. Cash dumped his first wife for June Carter, and spent years struggling with amphetamine addiction. So when the press material for the show came to my inbox, I was startled to see the word "upbeat" in the subject line.

Obviously, he wasn't the first person to "reinvent himself," matrimonially, ditching a tired old spouse along the path to fame and fortune; and obviously surviving to the age of 71 in spite of drug addiction is a pretty amazing feat in itself. But neither of those things makes this show "upbeat."

Ring of Fire, in more ways than one, is "created" by Richard Maltby, Jr.—by stringing together a long list of songs that are supposed to tell a life's story. I'm not sure whose life it's supposed to be, but there's a gingerbread cottage on stage, with a five or six-piece band on the stoop. And a sort of Greek chorus tells a bunch of very brief stories about the grueling work of Depression-era farmers along the Mississippi (in Arkansas): with each story calculated to introduce another song, usually penned by Mr. Cash. The first several of these tunes are notably amateurish, though most of the latter ones are enjoyable in small doses. Sadly, however, this is the man's entire goddam songbook.

Now, in finally looking at the program, I see there is no promise of real-life accuracy whatsoever. The official title of the show is Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash. But it all strives to create an image of the man through a dubious combination of fine singing and acting, and an outrageous hodge-podge of ditties that are each, in various ways, striving to be universal. Due to the structure (a revue style) and Mr. Maltby Jr.'s intent (to string together a bunch of unrelated songs), we somehow end up knowing less about Johnny Cash when we leave the theater than we did when we came in.

There is some biographical material buried in the middle of the program, but that pious verbiage talks more about the Bible and being "true to your word" than drugs or June Carter Cash. It's only there that we read anything about Cash's first wife, though she never appears on-stage in this jukebox musical.

Even as the waters historical get muddier, Derek Keeling remains amazingly clear and believable in his splendid vocal and physical impersonation of the young Cash in the flesh. Jason Edwards (who also directs) sidesteps the problem of historical revisionism in his own on-stage performance, as a sort of older version of ... well, someone who might vaguely remind you of Johnny Cash, anyway. But it doesn't make things any clearer.

Trenna Barnes has an outstanding voice and delivery, first playing one of Cash's young siblings, and later as a sort of June Carter stand-in (of course, the couple sings "Jackson," the real-life pair's big hit). And Allison Briner is terrific, singing and dancing and acting in many other women's roles, from song to song. A random sprinkling of hymns like "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" may flatter some in the audience.

But in the end (despite a lot of excellent performances), the theater's too warm, the seats are like bags of rocks underneath you for two hours, and the whole production seems like it should be quarantined in one of those precious little revue theaters at Six Flags Over Mid-America, just west of here. Amusement park theaters turn out some incredible show people, but to my knowledge they've never yet intentionally created one single decent piece of theater.

One of those incredible showmen, John W. Marshall, does a rollicking good job here on a huge slap bass fiddle—in fact, he's just completed a 20-year run of Billy Hill and the Hillbillies at Disneyland's Golden Horseshoe Theatre. Meantime, most of the rest of the cast can boast genuine country credentials—some with Broadway credits, too.

Of course, Ring of Fire was placed on the Rep's schedule well before the riots up in Ferguson and down in my own neighborhood near Tower Grove Park. It's just an unfortunate coincidence that this musical has come along now to slather its audience in "down-home goodness" and leaves us drenched in a southern white fantasy.

Blame it on bad timing but, in trying to replicate the success of Stages' Always: Patsy Cline, at this point in local history, the Rep has also given us a show that fiddles while our own Rome burns.

Through December 28, 2014, on the Browning Main-Stage at the Loretto-Hilton theater building, 130 Edgar Rd., on the campus of Webster University. For more information visit

Act One songs include "Country Boy," "Flesh and Blood," "While I've Got It on My Mind" (a song about "afternoon delight," which prompted me to write in my notes, "does this song really need a 'big finish'?"), "Five Feet High and Rising," "In the Sweet By and By," "Daddy Sang Bass/Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "I Still Miss Someone," "Tennessee Flat-Top Box," "Straight A's in Love," "Big River," "Tear Stained Letter," "Get Rhythm," "Dirty Old Egg Suckin' Dog," "Oh Come Angel Band," "Flushed From the Bathroom of My Heart (I am not making this up)," "If I Were a Carpenter," "and Ring of Fire.

In Act Two: "I've Been Everywhere," "Cry Cry Cry," "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "Going to Memphis," "Delia's Gone," "Orleans Parish Prison," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Man in Black," "All Over Again," "A Boy Named Sue," "Jackson," "I Walk the Line," "The Far Side Banks of Jordan," "Why Me Lord," and "Hey Porter."

The Players
Principal: Trenna Barnes
Principal: Allison Briner
Principal: Jason Edwards
Principal: Derek Keeling
Drums/Ensemble: Walter Hartman
Fiddle/Ensemble: Brantley Kearns
Keyboard, Accordion/Ensemble: Jeff Lisenby
Upright Bass/Ensemble: John W. Marshall
Electric and Acoustic Guitar, Trumpet/Ensemble: Brent Moyer
Electric and Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin, Harmonica/Ensemble: Brent Moyer

Production Staff
Director: Jason Edwards
Musical Director: Jeff Lisenby
Assistant Director/Choreographer: Denise Patton
Scenic Designer: John Iacovelli
Costume Designer: Lou Bird
Lighting Designer: Kenton YeagerSound/Projection Designer: Joe Payne
Casting Director: Rich Cole
Stage Manager: Emilee Buchheit
Assistant Stage Manager: Lionel A. Christian

Photo: Jerry Naunheim, Jr.

-- Richard T. Green

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