BWW Review: Arizona Theatre Company Presents RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH
Leave it to Arizona Theatre Company's program notes to recount the biography of Johnny Cash's rise from modest Arkansas beginnings to fame as the voice of the common man and forgotten souls, to explain the demons that taunted him and forged his sympathy with society's outliers, and to reveal the transformative love he shared with June Carter.
RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH stands on its merits principally as a highly entertaining and upbeat tribute to the "man in black."
With the exception of a dozen songs written by the likes of such kindred spirits as Kris Kristofferson, James Hardin, Jack Clement, Shel Silverstein, and, of course, his one true love, June Carter, RING OF FIRE is the legend's own songbook, arranged according to the timelines of his life ~ from The Farm to the Grand Ole Opry, from Substance Abuse and his dedication to "the prisoner who has long paid for his crime" to Love and his Later Years.
The early years of Cash's life, while formative, were not as dramatic and volatile as the last, and so it may not be surprising that Act One is less revelatory than reveling in gentle-hearted, folksy, and witty tunes (Five Feet High and Rising, Dirty Old Egg Suckin' Dog, Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart). It is the romantic and touching interplay between Cash and Carter in If I Were A Carpenter and Cash's rendition of Carter's composition, Ring of Fire, that preview Act Two and the next and turbulent stage of Cash's journey through hell to redemption.
Even then, with tune after memorable tune (Cry, Cry, Cry, Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk the Line), RING OF FIRE only hints and winks at the drama and turbulence of Cash's life. It does not stray very far into those deep fields and thus settles for being more a jukebox musical than an illuminating play.
In the end, RING OF FIRE is a wild and burning performance concert with a first-class cast that does its best when it is kicking up its heels and delivering every song with gusto. Michael Monroe Goodman and Brian Mathis play the younger and older Cash with the requisite poise and tone that befits their character's stage of life. Trenna Barnes and Allison Briner-Dardenne deliver sterling performances as the spirited and savvy women in Cash's life.
One of the true delights of the show is the band of musicians that, from their first strummings (especially those of John W. Marshall's upright bass and Brantley Kearns's fiddle) on the porch of John Iacovelli's rustic farmhouse set, stoke the flames of RING OF FIRE.
RING OF FIRE continues its run on Herberger Theater Center's Center Stage through April 16th.
Photo credit to Tim Fuller