Let’s get this out of the way: The biggest hurdle to surmount regarding Stages’ production of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash is its inauspicious beginning.
Ring of Fire was conceived by William Meade, adapted from a production by creator Richard Maltby, Jr. and Jason Edwards that closed after a mere six weeks, after which it was reconfigured. That may not sound like a recipe for success, but give it a chance. The narrative, insomuch as there is one, is essentially Cash’s life story. Bits of dialogue have been pulled from Cash's autobiography to link together his songs to form something like a less detailed, musical Wikipedia entry. Which, it turns out, is exactly what we want. Gone are any new characters or clichéd stories. Here you’ll find Johnny Cash’s music, on display front and center, and characters that we already know and love or will know and love soon by association.
So, if the music is beloved as are the people the show is based on, the question becomes one of how well the cast and production team can pull it off in a relatively loose framework. And what better place to start answering that question than with the man himself.
It's fair to say that Ben Hope is a more upbeat Man in Black, lacking some of the bass-baritone’s flinty command, but between his twang and his impish charm, he’s still able to evoke Cash’s spirit, especially in songs like “Hey Porter” and “A Boy Named Sue.” It’s a challenging role, as Hope is on stage and singing for most of Ring of Fire, but he proves to be up for it, appearing present and engaged even when off to the side, when the brightest lights are on his co-stars, and he’s probably in need of a break.
Katie Barton, the June to his Johnny, is spot-on as the grande dame of country music. Just as bright-eyed and vivacious as June Carter Cash, Barton expertly captures her trademark growl, much to the audible thrill of the audience, and successfully pays homage to Carter Cash’s comedic chops with an amusing yet earnest rendition of “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart.” Barton and Hope’s duets on “Jackson” and “If I Were a Carpenter” are especially satisfying, with their turn at the titular song being one of the most electrically charged moments of the evening.
Hope and Barton pull double duty as director and music director, respectively. Barton is confident in her direction and staging, and it’s hard to imagine Hope pulling any better a musical performance out of their cast.
Supporting the two are Eric Scott Anthony, Marcy McGuigan and Morgan Morse. Anthony is a strong, solid presence on stage as Cash’s father, a member of his band, and especially in his solo number, “Delia.” The highlight, however, is his playfully suggestive duet with McGuigan, “While I’ve Got It On My Mind.” McGuigan is a real stand out, masterfully tackling roles as Cash’s mother, Cash’s first wife Vivian, and even Grand Ole Opry staple Minnie Pearl. She gets to flaunt her vocal abilities on the funny “Egg Suckin’ Dog,” the ominous “Cry, Cry, Cry” and rousing “Get Rhythm.” Morse gets in on the action as Cash’s brother Jack (leading into a very emotional section early in the show), multiple virtuoso guitar solos and a crowd-pleasing performance of one of Cash’s most famous tunes, “Folsom Prison Blues.”
All five cast members spend the show impressively picking up and trading off a range of traditional country and Appalachian instruments – guitar, bass, dobro, banjo, accordion, washboard, autoharp, etc. – with the ease of a show-off, meaning the skill of people who know exactly what they’re doing. They do more than justice to Cash’s music.
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Ultimately, Ring of Fire works because the music is amazing and the performers are dynamic. It’s a show that’s more retrospective concert than jukebox musical or revue which, again, works better than expected. Still, the times when the music is woven most tightly into the narrative, during “Five Feet and Rising” as the Mississippi floods, when McGuigan sings “Cry, Cry, Cry” as Vivian or when Hope performs “I Still Miss Someone” after Carter Cash’s death, are the most effective of the entire show.
The creative team enhances the performance, from the simple, rustic set designed by Jon Young, which prove to be quite utilitarian, to Clint Allen’s lighting designs, which do a lot of the work in terms of establishing mood. The one drawback during the evening was the sound. One more than one occasion, the instruments drowned out the vocals.
From somber to rollicking, with audiences fully encouraged to clap their hands, tap their feet and sing along, Ring of Fire is a rip rollin' good time. Cash fans will love it, and for those few out there who aren’t already fans, Ring of Fire will make a convert out of you.
Performances continue through September 2 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $25 to $63.