‘Ring of Fire’ reveals Johnny Cash’s story through his music
By Mary Houlihan For Sun-Times Media March 6, 2014 8:03AM
Cory Goodrich and Michael Goodman star in “Ring of Fire” at Theatre at the Center. | MICHAEL BROSILOW PHOTO
‘RING OF FIRE’
♦ To March 30
♦ Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road,
♦ Tickets, $40-$44
♦ (800) 511-1552;
Updated: March 22, 2014 6:11AM
In the waning months of his life, Johnny Cash gave his blessing to a musical about his life, which resulted in Richard Maltby’s “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash.” The show had a painful, monthlong run on Broadway in 2006. Since then Maltby has reworked the show to bring it down to a more intimate level featuring five singer-musicians.
This is the version of the jukebox musical that director Brian Russell saw in 2013 in a cabaret setting at Milwaukee Repertory Theater and convinced him it would be a perfect fit for Theatre at the Center. However, that stage is not a cabaret space, so to fill out the sound Russell added drums and piano to the mix of guitars and fiddle, bringing the cast to seven.
“This also allows us to add another arc to the show in terms of how the music is presented,” Russell says. “Cash’s early songs were simpler with guitar and fiddle but later in his career they got deeper and sweeter. So there is not a whole lot of piano and drums in act one but more in act two.”
Leading the cast of “Ring of Fire” is Kent Lewis (Johnny Cash), Cory Goodrich (June Carter Cash) and Michael Goodman (Young Johnny). Four multi-instrumentalist performers round out the cast — Greg Hirte, Malcolm Ruhl, Billy Shaffer and William Underwood.
Cash is remembered primarily as a country artist, but his style spanned genres from gospel and folk to rock and blues. More than 30 songs (some familiar, some not) from Cash’s songbook are performed as the ups and downs of his life and career are traced from the cotton fields of Arkansas to the Grand Ole Opry.
“The show is a fascinating and engaging exploration of Johnny Cash’s music and the iconic role he played in 20th century America,” Russell says. “The journey he struggled with throughout his life to find meaning and ultimately redemption is a powerful one and told through his music.”
Not tied to a traditional story line, the show instead develops in an arc of smaller vignettes; the actors do not try to impersonate Cash or June Carter Cash. “That’s a fool’s errand,” Russell notes. “What we’re working toward is presenting the story and the music in an authentic way.”
Lewis, of course, was familiar with all the Cash hits such as “I Walk the Line,” “A Boy Named Sue” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” but he says the show has opened up to him the depths of Cash’s songbook.
“There’s just a wealth of American folk music that really spoke to him and I think speaks to all of us,” Lewis explains. “The big, familiar numbers pay the rent but it’s really special to sing some of the lesser-known songs like ‘Far Side Banks of Jordan’ and ‘All Over Again’.”
Goodrich adds, “Johnny Cash wasn’t just a singer; he was a man with an artistic vision who had something to say. His songs tell great stories but he also had an agenda and some important things to say.”
What Maltby does with “Ring of Fire” is find the poetry in Cash’s music. Strung together, these sophisticated and honest songs paint a portrait of the legendary singer and songwriter. Since there is no real book to the show, the songs guide the audience through his life.
“I think the arc of the show as it paints a sort of Impressionist view of a man’s life is appealing in a dynamic and thoughtful way,” Lewis says. “Johnny Cash was special to a lot of people in a lot of different ways. And the selection of songs here show exactly why he was considered the everyman of country music.”