Thalian Association’s latest offering on the Main Stage of Thalian Hall is “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash.” Conceived and created by Richard Maltby Jr. (lyricist for “Miss Saigon”) and William Meade (musical co-ordinator for the stage adaptation of “Saturday Night Fever”), “Ring of Fire” is more of a tribute show than a biography of the Man in Black.
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” is obviously the only possible line to kick of this show, which most of the cast members recite when they come out for the opening number. This is the first clue for the audience to realize that there isn’t one actor portraying Cash. Rather, it’s like “I’m Not There” the Todd Haynes film about Bob Dylan, wherein numerous characters represent Dylan’s different stages in life. With “Ring of Fire,” an assortment of people channel Cash for brief bursts. Literally, an ensemble of 12 people (the same number as a jury: coincidence? I think not), perform the best-known songs of one of the most enduring musical icons of the 20th century. If anything, this approach reminds the audience Cash was a versatile musical chameleon, whose work crossed many lines and wove together people, yet created incredibly different images for many as to who the Man in Black really was.
If you are expecting to journey through the life of Cash, this is not that show. There is some biographical information, but it is sparse and skirts largely around the parts of his life that are most dramatic and theatre-worthy: his epic romance with country-music royalty June Carter, his passionate yet doomed first marriage, his drug addiction, etc. The first is barely touched upon, and the second is ignored entirely. There is brief mention of the first time he had real painkillers when he broke his rib, but that is the only nod to his addictive personality and the attendant struggles. Early experiences of his family on the farm and the loss of his brother, Jack, are used to provide a loose framework for the first act. But by act two, that pretense is largely dropped in favor of a concert atmosphere.
Rasa Love’s homage to Minnie Pearl at the Grand Ole Opry (“Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart”) is delightful and generates applause as soon as she steps onstage in costume with Pearl’s signature hat—complete with the price tag. Don’t be misled by this moment of humor: Love has a big voice, and it is made for singing this score. My companion of the evening commented that listening to Love sing this music made him want to see her play the title role in “Always … Patsy Cline.” I have to agree. Love is blessed with a beautiful voice that manages to wring every soulful note out of these songs, while still rockin’ and not getting lost in the twang. Her sexy rendition of “While I’ve Got It On My Mind” could put anyone in the mood, anytime.
Actually, for beautiful female voices, director Lance Howell struck gold: Beth Swindell and mother-daughter duo Sonda and Lea Jaffe round out the principal women singers. Swindell captivates with this show (I couldn’t stop staring at her; she was having so much fun). Clearly, she has been longing for a nice young man to ask her to go square dancing, if her performance here is any indication. Add in a beautiful voice, poise and a graceful figure that positively vibrates with joy, and it’s a recipe for star quality.
This is the first time I have seen Lea and Sonda Jaffe onstage. Daughter Lea is a beautiful, young redhead, who seems to have life by the throat right now. Her mother, Sonda, turned in a wonderful performance as the Cash-family matriarch. From “Daddy Sang Bass” to “Five Feet High and Rising,” her voice truly projects a maternal, loving quality to all onstage. If anything, one wants to hug her but wouldn’t want to embarrass the proud woman she portrays. Elise Rouse and Beth Corvino round out the female ensemble with Southern grace and willingness that lends harmony where needed and a twirl for accents.
This is definitely a masculine-heavy show. Mike Maykish, Rob Winner, Charlie Robertson, Charles Patton, Sam Robinson, and Scot Cash find themselves with the daunting task of trying to match the macho of America’s favorite outlaw. They manage to find the a few humorous moments in “Egg Suckin’ Dog” and “A Boy Named Sue.” Robertson plays guitar off and on throughout the show; however, he seems to find his real high note with “Ragged Old Flag.” His chest swells with pride throughout the song.
Putting the band onstage, instead of the orchestra pit, was a good choice for this show. It is really all about a songwriter and his band. Bassist Nick Loeber got a few rounds of applause for his solos throughout the evening, and the whole band seemed to be having a great time with good music that they love. That’s the crux of the show: It’s a chance to sing along with some of your favorite tunes and some good friends in the audience.
“Ring of Fire” closed within the first months on Broadway, partly because it lacks story to anchor the music. Still, it puts Cash’s words and work up front and makes the music his legacy. It’s not the myth but the words.
If you are looking for a fun evening to walk down memory lane through defining songs of the last 50 years, then this show will take you there. Personally, I would have enjoyed more discussion on Cash’s artistic process: how and when he wrote, why he took to recording cover albums at the end of his life (that contain some of his most haunting material), and more of an exploration as to how he combined so many contradictions to be so very, very human and flawed yet a superhuman to many of his fans. At the end of the night, his music is remarkable, and his words echo in your head and heart to remind you why he is timeless.
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
Thurs..-Sun., Feb. 12-15, 7:30 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.