Ring of Fire: And Time Keeps Draggin' On
Toward the end of director/creator Richard Maltby, Jr.'s innocuous, forgettable trifle of a show called Ring of Fire, presumed to be a tribute to American music legend Johnny Cash, actor Jeb Brown sings "The Man in Black", an autobiographical song where Cash explained why his appearance always seemed to have a somber tone.
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Living in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner, who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.
I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men...
The above lyric from 1971, when sung in its entirety, reveals a man who chooses to use his fame to remind us of those who suffer every day; a man who loves his country, but who sees its flaws and is pained by the misfortune of those without a public voice. The lyric has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in Ring of Fire.
William Meade gets prominent billing for having come up with the show's concept, but there's little of significance connecting the evening's 37 songs, all recorded by Cash, but 16 of which were written by others. The cast of 6 actor/singers and 8 musician/singers (though everybody does at least a bit of all three) act out the lyric dramas of one of the country's great musical story-tellers as if they were segments from television's Hee-Haw or The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.
Shel Siverstein's "A Boy Named Sue" is inexplicably performed as a fake barroom brawl acted out on a television soundstage. "Daddy Sang Bass" is a relentlessly cheery family meal. "Dirty Old… Dog" is sung by a trio at the Grand Ole Opry. A prison sequence (which includes "Folsom Prison Blues") is played in such a harmless show-biz manner I was half-expecting the chain gang to break into, "God, I hope I get it."
The fine-singing, likeable cast members do their jobs well, with the core group divided into three couples. There's Jarrod Emick and Beth Malone as the spitfire gal and the boy with the perpetual "aw-shucks" look on his face. Jeb Brown is the older, more dangerous guy (you can tell he's dangerous because he hasn't shaved) matched up with the strong, sexual Lari White, and Jason Edwards and Cass Morgan are our mellow, but still vital, senior couple. The charismatic David M. Lutken (the daddy who sang bass) frequently steps out of the band for some featured vocals.
There are several instances where the audience is encouraged to clap along with the music. I don't wish to discuss it.
The set is dominated by Michael Clark's projections of farmlands, big skies and quaint old houses looking like they were designed with pegs from a Lite Brite board.
It's difficult to figure out exactly what audience Ring of Fire is meant to attract. New York hasn't had a country music radio station in more than a decade and I have a hunch that lovers of the genre may be turned off by the ineffectual interpretations of the material.
What Ring of Fire most reminds me of are the sort of lighthearted revues I used to do back in my acting days at theme parks and resort hotels. Cute distractions to give audiences a breather between roller-coaster rides and trips to the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. The difference (besides the more professional quality of the performers, of course) is that they were usually free and only a half-hour long. At over 2 hours in length, it doesn't take long before Ring of Fire starts feeling more like The Ring Cycle.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Jeb Brown and Lari White
Center: Beth Malone and Jarrod Emick
Bottom: Cass Morgan and Jason Edwards