Ring of Fire
Welcome to Branson—um, I mean—Broadway! The countriest play on earth! At least with the opening of Ring of Fire, the “jukebox musical” created by Richard Maltby, Jr. based on the songs of Johnny Cash, it feels a lot more country these days in the Big Apple.
As a fan of the Man in Black, I expected a musical version a little closer to Walk the Line. Wasn’t that in fact what people were paying for? That’s also what the producers must have been thinking when they skipped a more lengthy process of trial and error after its positive premiere in Buffalo: A movie tie-in (that also snagged Reese an Oscar) seems like perfect timing.
Clearly Cash’s life is ripe for interpretation into a good story, and the storytelling has already been captured by the extraordinary yet simple songs. Maltby, who not only created another musical revue, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and won a Tony for best musical in 1978, he is credited for creating the genre. He certainly knows how to craft something greater than the sum of its parts.
So, why in this musical review, which depends solely on Cash’s music, and contains very little dialogue to segue between parts, does his image get so scrubbed, so cleansed and so god darn happy? The legend gets erased and is replaced with an ersatz version: Three men in gray (representing Cash in youth, middle-age and later in life) who seem like good ol’ boys just wanting to chill-out, go fishing and maybe score a little nookie. The more “mature” Johnny (Jason Edwards) lacks any of the gravitas of the original and instead looks like a sad puppy who’s been kicked too many times.
The trinity concept is repeated with three June Carter Cashes who pair up with their respective age-appropriate mate and often sing in a call-and-response manner that at least gives us a little tension and semblance of a narrative hook to latch onto. Without moments like While I’ve Got It On My Mind, (with duo Jeb Brown and Lari White singing about how they’re in the mood to get it on) then it would just be a schizophrenic concert with six lead singers (plus band).
Perhaps that’s supposed to justify the 100 bucks for seats: It takes three times as many performers to match up to the inimitable Johnny and June.
I’ll admit, it was a difficult experience to sit through the show, but as I internally thrashed in my seat, trying not to yelp with pain, I noticed that others around me seemed to be enjoying themselves. Could I be that off-target? Those were claps to the beat. Laughs and cheers, not moans and groans.
I stepped back at that point and tried to take a new tack to the stage experience that was driving me crazy. That’s when I realized: It’s a show my parents would get. They would understand this simple, hetero love romp set to song that was causing me to squirm with the cheese toast factor.
That’s who these people around me were: Tourists from "middle America" braving New York and wanting to make sure they paid for a good time. While murder, cannibalism, torture and lunacy can all be found at stages nearby, how many of them actually want to pay to see that. No, in that way Ring of Fire is the Lion King for the emptynester. The Mamma Mia! for those who were listening to Loretta Lynn in the ’70s instead of the Bee-Gees.
Don’t get me wrong, of course there are moments to enjoy. Grammy-winning country and gospel singer Lari White belts it out like few can. And I could see people bellying up $100 just to see her vivacious attitude and hear her vocal can-do.
In fact, the women (veteran Cass Morgan and another new talent, Beth Malone) are the most impressive forces in the production, often supplying the spark and punch beyond what they’ve been directed to do and jazzing up what at times is a rather dreary time. The other stand-out is the handsome Jarrod Emick who has that cute yokel look down (and fills out his jeans nicely).
At intermission I took stock of the situation.
“Give me a Jack and ginger,” I told the bartender, to help get into the spirit.
That’s when I overheard a woman say, “This is horrible.” Another woman, talking to someone back home on her cell phone, mis-heard her and piped up, “It is wonderful isn’t it?”
It proved to me how out of touch so many in the audience were with one another.
When I returned to my seat (with many more vacant ones around me), I felt more relaxed. I was no longer struggling to get through the second act—a much more somber set that teetered on actually capturing a little more of the singer’s history. Again, the women rocked the house with Orleans Parish Prison, making me glad I’d braved the second act.
Blame it on the whiskey, but I found myself calmer now. Sure, this show could be playing in Branson or Vegas — and probably would be very soon, along with a sold out tour to regional theaters—but it was just an example of what Broadway is moving towards. Transcendence through theater isn’t what was going on here; no, it was just a knee-slapping good time.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th St.)
Plays Tuesday - Saturday at 8:00PM and matinees on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00PM.