Cash Musical 'Ring of Fire' Walks the Line to Broadway
The label "jukebox musical" has become an emotional phrase in the theatre world. The words evoke the vibrant colors of recent hits, as well as the melancholy ghosts of a few notable flops. A show that is based on the catalog of a particular artist generally takes one of two forms; A book musical with songs that follow a main plot line such as Mamma Mia!, or an evening of songs that are performed in a format that is most similar to a musical revue, such as Smokey Joe's Cafe. Richard Maltby Jr. (Ain't Misbehavin', Miss Saigon) and William Meade's Ring of Fire is definitely the latter.
Ring of Fire is a musical show based on the music of Johnny Cash, and it is currently playing to sold out houses at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, New York. This production, directed by Maltby, is the sole tryout production prior to a February opening on Broadway. In his director notes, Maltby states that the show is "an almost mythic American tale – of growing up in simple, dirt-poor surroundings in the heartland of America, leaving home, traveling on the wings of music, finding love, misadventure, success, faith, redemption and the love of a good woman – and eventually returning home". It is not intended to be a biography of Mr. Cash, and doesn't have a discernable story line. This production is presented by a very capable cast of fourteen, led by Broadway veteran and Tony winner Jarrod Emick (The Boy From Oz, Rocky Horror, Damn Yankees) and Jason Edwards (Off Broadway's Johnny Guitar). The band is comprised of eight musician/actors, who remain on stage throughout, providing vocal backup and acting that makes them as much a part of the show as any of the six principles. Mr. Emick gives a charming performance, drawing swoons during "Straight A's In Love" and watery eyes in "Folsom Prison Blues".
Cass Morgan (Broadway's Beauty and the Beast, Capeman , actor and co-author of Pump Boys and Dinettes) provided some of the evening's most powerful and humorous moments with "Waiting on The Far Side Banks of Jordan" and "Flushed" respectively.
The show is jam-packed with 38 of the songs that made Mr. Cash famous. High points of the evening include the full company numbers "Daddy Sang Bass" and "Angel Band". The songs selected showcase the emotional range, wit and charm of the Man in Black. The sheer quantity of tunes does not overwhelm, as the pace of the show is tight. This is somewhat aided by the limited dialogue, and the cinematic staging enabled by a pair of mobile video walls. Other than helping move the show along, the device of the video walls as the primary scenic element does not create the warmth that this show could convey with a more traditional design. Some reshuffling of the song order might serve the show better. For instance, a larger version of the title song would make a fine act one closer. Instead, this low-key orchestration of "Ring of Fire" is second to last in the first act, and is followed by "Jackson". The second song of act two is "I've Been Everywhere". It is ingeniously staged with all fourteen members of the cast adorned with matching guitars playing and singing the lyrics in an exciting round-robin. This would be an excellent and lively way to close the show.
As it stands, Ring of Fire is sure to delight fans of the genre. Judging from the laughter, smiles, and tears in the audience, the show is a definite crowd pleaser that will find success on Broadway, providing that it finds it's niche. The show plays Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, New York through October 9th, 2005. Tickets are available at the theatre or by calling the box office at (716)856-5650/1-800-77STAGE or online at www.studioarena.org.
Ring of Fire, The Johnny Cash Musical Show will have its New York premiere on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street) beginning February 2006.