BWW Review: Fall Into the RING OF FIRE at The Belmont

BWW Review: Fall Into the RING OF FIRE at The Belmont

Everyone may not be Johnny Cash, but Johnny Cash is Everyman. At least, that's a premise to RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF Johnny Cash in the mind of director Andrea Stephenson at the Belmont Theatre. It's not a bad premise. Few people knew more about more aspects of life: poverty, hard work, addiction, on the one hand, but fame, fortune, and family on the other. Cash knew about being a drifter, knew about being arrested, felt for the men in prisons, but also lived on the better side of things as well. As he sang, he'd been everywhere, and he'd been through everything.

RING OF FIRE premiered in Buffalo in 2005 and hit Broadway as a jukebox musical in 2006. No cast member is Johnny Cash, yet all are. It's a flexible show; it had six cast members on Broadway, this writer has seen it with as many as ten, and at the Belmont there are eight - four men, four women. While it tells in few words and much music (thirty three songs if you're counting) the story of Johnny Cash, it really doesn't do much to evoke Cash's presence. That Cash can be played on stage, and well, is evidenced in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, yet this iteration of the Man In Black, while casting much light on our own lives through his songs, doesn't illuminate its mythic hero nearly as much.

The Belmont's production features a sizzling band that's on stage throughout the show, conducted by music director Nicole Reed. The cast rotates songs, but the band's cooking the whole time. Cast member Joe Reed (last seen at the Belmont in SWEENEY TODD as the Beadle) brings out a guitar occasionally, but it's the band that keeps it going.

Reed is one of the more conspicuous male performers, along with Bob Marshall, whose Cash-reminiscent gravelly tones are used to great advantage in "Ragged Old Flag." Reed does full justice to a down and dirty "Cocaine Blues," while Marshall and Reed get down on "Big River."

Among the women, Becky Wilcox is the belter of the group, and she's no stranger to country music performances; among other shows, she's done ALWAYS, PATSY CLINE at the Belmont. Her "Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart" - yes, it's a real song - is a comic gem, and Wilcox also knows her comedy. She's also great in the female lead of "While I've Got It On My Mind" and "Jackson".

Wilcox also can get the roughest, most traditionally "country" sound among the women, though Heather Stoll is a close second in "I Walk the Line" with Reed. BWW Review: Fall Into the RING OF FIRE at The BelmontThe fact makes one of the choices by director Stephenson feel strange: an all-female trio of gorgeously ethereal quality performing "Sunday Morning Coming Down," the Kris Kristofferson number that gave Cash a huge hit, simply doesn't feel right. It's a song requiring grit and rough edges that the trio simply doesn't have. It's not a song for angels, and the number's delivery is entirely angelic.

A sense of slightly too nice settles over the entire show; Cash had a rough, gritty, hard life and a voice to match, while the production feels a bit sanitized, perhaps to allow everyone to look for their Everyman... but that Everyman is Cash himself, conspicuously absent from the proceedings. Still, the show is an enjoyable concert of Johnny Cash songs, and if that's what you aim for, you'll get it, with a wide range of performers and voices doing some nicely outlined harmonies. This writer was frankly surprised that the opening night audience wasn't in a real singalong mood until the second act, which opened with an energetic "Hey Porter," as the first act has such juicy and well-known numbers as "Daddy Sang Bass," the title song, "Ring of Fire," and "Jackson," which is a cheerily rowdy number on its own. The audience finally perked up to the gory humor of "Delia's Gone," though it's hard to believe that they didn't follow along into the next song, Reed's delightful performance of "Cocaine Blues." This writer really expected the sold-out crowd there to have felt closer to some of Cash's best known numbers and have been readier to roar along.

For those less familiar with Cash, the songs chosen by creator Richard Maltby, Jr. make a splendid introduction to his recordings. The great humor of many of the songs, and not merely his hit "A Boy Named Sue" (also in the show, of course) is sometimes overlooked. Cash enjoyed a humorous song, a dark song, and sometimes a not-so-simple love song; in a world of complications, the songs he chose to perform and record reflected the realities of life, not an ideal world, and that, along with his delivery and persona and his unique guitar style, made him popular with many outside the usual country music base.

His last recordings, such as AMERICAN RECORDINGS, not reflected in the musical, were in the vein of much of his earliest ones. They were stripped-down, spare arrangements pushing the edge of roots rock and roll, covering Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe, and Glen Danzig, and some tracks were recorded at Hollywood's Viper Room, but the works were critically acclaimed as a return to Cash's true voice. It's doubtful that the traditional Johnny Cash fan knows them, but an acknowledgment of his return to his original musical sound while transforming the contemporary would have been a real showing of Cash's Everyman status, including his ability to bridge musical generations through his sound and his image as the original Man In Black.

If it's live Johnny Cash sounds you want, get to the Belmont by August 20. Tickets and information are available by phone or at thebelmont.org.

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From This Author Marakay Rogers

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