Ring of Fire The Johnny Cash Musical Show Created by Richard Maltby, Jr.. Conceived by William Meade. Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.. Choreographed by Lisa Shriver. Scenic production design by Neil Patel. Costume design by David C. Woolard. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by Peter Fitzgerald & Carl Casella. Projection design by Michael Clark. Starring Jeb Brown, Jason Edwards, Jarrod Emick, Beth Malone, Cass Morgan, Lari White, with David M. Lutken, Randy Redd, and Eric Anthony, Laurie Canaan, Dan Immel, Ron Krasinski, Jeff Lisenby, Brent Moyer.
It takes a genius to create art from the everyday, but a skilled craftsman can at least make the pedestrian above average. And as far as theatre craftsmen go, you can do much worse than Richard Maltby, Jr., the primary saving grace behind the Broadway production of Ring of Fire that just opened at the Barrymore.
Bucking the trend of recent, troubling seasons, creator and director Maltby has not simply shoved songs written or made famous by Johnny Cash (1932-2003) into an awful book that only highlights their nonexistent theatricality. Instead, he's fashioned them into a rough, bookless tour through the spirit of Cash's life, with all the attendant pleasure and pain. And, amazingly, there's a time or two when Ring of Fire achieves its goal of being a good, old-fashioned Broadway hoedown. (And it certainly does more for red state relations than did Urban Cowboy in 2003 or last season's revival of Steel Magnolias.)
But if this isn't Mamma Mia!, it also isn't Ain't Misbehavin', the Fats Waller song-catalog show Maltby led to terrific success in 1978. That show also had no book to speak of. But Maltby nonetheless established a theatrical atmosphere, so that it always seemed a story was being told; cast members played consistent characters from start to finish, thus allowing for interplay and escalating tension generally alien to the traditional revue.
Maltby has attempted less here, instead using his cast (Jeb Brown, Jason Edwards, Jarrod Emick, Beth Malone, Cass Morgan, and Lari White) to play a variety of archetypal people who use Cash's songs to narrate isolated events from their lives. These events are organized by theme into musical sequences revolving around home and family, the farm, the local tavern, the Grand Ole Opry, prison, death, and so on.
But as there's no real continuity, neither a story nor characters can ever fully form. So despite Maltby's best efforts, despite the impressive work of projection designer Michael Clark and lighting designer Ken Billington to give the show a varied visual look with an LED-scenery-billboard backdrop, and despite Lisa Shriver's attempts to unify the show's movement with a country choreographic language, everything still ultimately exists in a vacuum.
There is, for example, no way to convincingly make "Straight A's in Love" incite a bar fight. Literalizing the endless downpour of "Five Feet High and Rising" gives the show an apparently unintentional apocalyptic feel at an inappropriate moment. And there's just something distasteful about this particular dramatization of Shel Silverstein's charming "A Boy Named Sue," which proves that some things are better sung about than acted out.
Forcing songs to bear narrative weight they were never intended to carry is the typical jukebox musical trap, and what makes nearly all of them dramatically inert. Given the bountiful talent of this performing troupe, the show would have been better served had Maltby had them perform the songs simply, honestly, and with as little fringe filigree as possible. As it is, specific highlights only come when the individual cast members are matched with material in ways that especially suit their unique gifts.
Emick's aw-shucks charm is ideal for "Country Boy," and he and Malone have enough down-home, rugged appeal to heat up the end of the first act when duetting on the title song and "If I Were a Carpenter." Morgan is as funny in the broken-love "Flushed (from the Bathroom of Your Heart)" as she is stirring in the eternal-love "Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan." And the two-time Grammy Award-winning White bears a bright brass trumpet of a voice that makes all her songs, as well as individual lines in larger group numbers, stand out.
Musical director Jeff Lisenby and his seven bandmates also frequently get into the act, singing, dancing, and mingling with the leads, and giving the Barrymore stage a rowdy, crowded feeling just right for Neil Patel's wood-paneled honky-tonk setting. Their playing (of keyboards, guitar, fiddle, bass, and numerous other instruments) is always expert, but they're overshadowed by the second-act opener, which finds the progressively tongue-twisting "I've Been Everywhere" sung by all 14 performers, each strumming a gleaming white guitar and delivering the closest approximation to a genuine showstopper.
The show never improves on that, but throughout it's far better than it has to be, especially given Cash's recent popularity resurgence (thanks to the success of the recent film about his life, Walk the Line), and the usual jukebox musical ethic of doing the least possible work for the maximum possible profit. Ring of Fire won't go down in theatre history as a titanic disaster (like Good Vibrations), or as a legitimately inspired hit (like Jersey Boys). But it knows what it is and never pretends to be anything else. Of that, if nothing else, Cash would have been rightfully proud.