Call it a Lawrence Welk Grand Ole Opry special or a non-ursine version of the Country Bears Jamboree, it’s easy to throw water on “Ring of Fire.” But that would be unjustly dismissive of the committed performers onstage, who sing and play the hell out of an eclectic selection from the Johnny Cash songbook in this spirited tribute revue. The show’s biggest problem is not its thin concept or overstretched length but its incongruousness on Broadway. It’s as if a twister had lifted the production out of some red state cornfield and plunked it down on unwelcoming 47th Street.
Will it play in New York? Probably not. Its reliance on Michael Clark’s literal-minded projections to create atmosphere — homey interiors, barrooms, railroad tracks, bland calendar vistas of farmland and countryside — make this a decidedly low-tech offering for a $100 ticket.
But while the enthusiastic reception to the musical’s tryout in Buffalo last fall may have encouraged producers prematurely to bypass the planned second stop in San Francisco and burn a trail to Gotham, Broadway branding stands to bolster its prospects as a touring vehicle, especially in the heartland.
Regardless of where it ends up playing, “Ring of Fire” will appeal more to Cash’s traditional country fan base than to the hipsters who embraced his music either late in his career or posthumously, when the scope of his influence and his contribution to American music across several genres had become abundantly clear.
Having more or less built the jukebox mold with his 1978 Fats Waller musical, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” creator-director Richard Maltby Jr. knows his way around the compilation format. The show doesn’t fabricate a narrative around Cash’s songs (as in “Mamma Mia,” “Good Vibrations” or “All Shook Up”) or paste them onto a biographical skeleton (like “Lennon” or “Jersey Boys”).
Instead, “Ring of Fire” attempts to explore the essence of Cash exclusively through thematic juxtaposition and arrangement of songs he wrote or performed, fashioning them into an impressionistic portrait that echoes rather than recounts his life.
Extending his gaze beyond the country music legend’s greatest hits to include semi-obscure tracks that will be unknown to all but obsessive Cash fans, Maltby laces the 37 songs and minimal linking dialogue into a fluid, freeform assembly of key themes. It segues from home and family to love, from traveling and performing to hardship and sorrow, from despair to faith, repentance and redemption.
But while the show attempts to cover all bases in capturing a life as well as honoring a remarkable musical legacy, it shortchanges Cash’s troubled soul.
Right off the bat, Maltby signals his intention to avoid the straightforward best-of approach by starting not with a Cash composition but with the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt,” majestically covered by Cash near the end of his life.
The emotional intensity with which Jason Edwards gouges out the anguish, pain and solitude in the lyrics suggests a willingness to dig beneath the surface. But the song is largely a false indicator. The majority of “Ring of Fire” is so peppy, it makes “Walk the Line” look like a Bergman movie.
Of the six principal performers onstage, interpreting aspects of Johnny and June Carter Cash, Edwards shoulders most of the show’s darker and more spiritual shadings. But even a bracket of prison songs manages to be fairly upbeat. Overall, Maltby and his cast present an uncharacteristically rosy Man in Black.
Adding to the sunny slant is the inclusion not just of the immortal “A Boy Named Sue,” but of various eccentric numbers that point up Cash’s surprising affinity for goofy, cornpone humor, such as “Straight A’s in Love,” “Egg Suckin’ Dog” and “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart,” the latter performed by Cass Morgan during the Opry seg as a Minnie Pearl homage.
Even the potential pathos of a flooded family farm becomes a jaunty prelude to joy in “Five Feet High and Rising,” while a bumper crop after barren years is celebrated in the exuberantly silly “Look at Them Beans,” gamely performed by effortless charmer Jarrod Emick.
The show’s breezy tone is best matched with toe-tapping numbers like “Hey Porter,” “Get Rhythm,” “Jackson,” “I’ve Been Everywhere” and, especially, a rousing full-cast rendition of “Daddy Sang Bass.”
They may turn on the down-home twang a little thickly, but the cast’s conviction and verve — not to mention their robust vocal skills and warm rapport with each other — go a long way toward countering the show’s generic beer-and-sawdust variety-hour feel. (This is far more palatable than the lethally dull Burt Bacharach/Hal David revue “The Look of Love,” which was similarly loose in structure.)
Emick’s infectious energy makes him the standout, but all the performers are aces, including feisty, sassy Beth Malone; Jeb Brown, who does rascally flirtiness as well as brooding introspection; and golden-voiced Lari White, a Grammy-winning country-Gospel singer making a confident first musical-theater stage appearance.
The musicians also acquit themselves admirably, many of them doing double-duty on vocals in their own solo numbers. Augmented at times by the versatile principals, who also take their turn playing instruments, the eight-piece band does some virtuoso work, notably Dan Immel on bass, David M. Lutken on harmonica and drummer Ron Krasinski, who smacks a mean percussion rhythm out of a metal chair and tin bucket in “Folsom Prison Blues.”