Mon 3 Mar, 2014
Tags: 2 1/2 STARS, Johnny Cash, Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, Theatre At The Center
America’s love affair with Johnny Cash lasted for about the last sixty years of his life, and will no doubt continue forward into perpetuity. While Cash was most often categorized as a country artist, he was attendant to the birth of Rock and Roll at Sun Studios in Memphis in 1955. Cash led a complicated and interesting life, which would make great subject matter for a musical featuring his incredible music. Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash is not that show.
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, currently playing at Theatre at the Center, is not really a musical at all, but rather a showcase of Johnny Cash’s music — music almost exclusively from the first third of his long and successful career. While the program notes claim that the setting of this show is “Johnny Cash’s life (1932-2003),” the dates that the included songs were released run mostly between 1955 and 1975. This show is less appropriate at a musical theatre venue than it would be running in a theatre in Branson, at Dollywood, or at Opryland.
The talented cast of singers and musicians in Theatre at the Center’s production Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash does a pretty good job with Cash’s early catalog. The role of Johnny Cash himself is split between a Young Johnny played by Michael Monroe Goodman (who spent two years with Million Dollar Quartet at the Apollo), and a more mature height-of-fame Johnny played by Kent M. Lewis. Mercifully, neither performer tries to pull off a full-blown Johnny Cash impersonation; both actors instead focus on just a handful of Johnny Cash’s physical and vocal mannerisms — enough to convey the spirit of the Man in Black without resorting to caricature.
Cory Goodrich, who plays June Carter Cash, is an amazing singer, particularly of selections from musicals and the Great American Songbook. June Carter Cash, by her own admission, was not an amazing singer; she was a so-so yet diligent singer for whom comedy came far more naturally than music. June was the clown of the Carter Family (incidentally, she studied acting with both Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner). Cory Goodrich does what she can with this part, but she is just too technically skilled a singer to convincingly stoop to June Carter Cash’s vocal style.
Multi-instrumentalist and Musical Director Malcolm Ruhl adds richness to the sound of many numbers with his work on the bass fiddle and resonator guitar. His six-string acoustic guitar work and vocal performance on “Delia’s Gone” is a highlight of the show.
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash is full of solid interpretations of some of Johnny Cash’s classic songs. The glaring absence of songs recorded after 1975 or so — most notably, “Hurt,” “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” or any of the other tracks Johnny Cash did with producer Rick Rubin in the 1990s and 2000s — leaves the audience wanting more, but not in that good way performers strive for. The talented singer-musicians are given very little story here upon which to exercise their acting chops. The narrative thread is ultimately threadbare, little more than a series of segues. The performers deserve better. Johnny Cash deserves better.
(“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash“ runs through March 30 at Theatre At The Center, 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, Indiana. 219-836-3255.)
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash production photos by Michael Brosilow.
* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. Ring Of Fire – The Music Of Johnny Cash – Theatre At The Center – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago