There’s a reason the original Broadway producers of Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical dropped the subtitle before the show opened in March of 2006: The show is not actually a musical. Nor is it even a “jukebox musical” á là Mamma Mia!, Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, or Hank Williams: Lost Highway. In those shows, the familiar songs are mapped onto a story –– often the story of the artist’s own life. But here, creator Richard Maltby Jr. (whose many awards include a Tony for the Fats Waller musical, Ain’t Misbehavin’) has attempted something rather audacious: To let the songs stand on their own without the overarching framework of definite characters, settings or even a plot. Granted, one of the strengths of Johnny Cash’s recordings is their emphasis on just those things. (Think of “Folsom Prison Blues,” for example.) But that’s true of lots of popular music, and it doesn’t really explain why one would want to make a show out of them. Maltby’s public statements about “a mythic American tale” and “the journey of a man in search of his own soul” don’t actually do much to preclude the obvious question, Why not just give a concert? Unfortunately, this was exactly the question New York critics asked the original producers. The show closed after only a month — a disastrous run by Broadway standards.
The point being that, if they’re expecting a musical, audiences at the current Flat Rock Playhouse production are in for a surprise. That surprise has the potential to be a very pleasant one. The sooner you realize that what you’re watching offers little or nothing in the way of actual drama, the more quickly you can shift your focus to what’s really impressive about this show: the performers themselves. The core cast of three men and three women is ostensibly backed by an ensemble of three “musicians,” but frankly, each performer is an expert musician — in some cases on multiple instruments. My notes include the following list: acoustic guitar, electric guitar, lap-steel guitar, double bass, electric bass, banjo (bluegrass style), mandolin, ukulele, fiddle, trumpet, drum kit, harmonica, accordion, autoharp, washboard, spoons and (yes) a metal chair. I may have missed a few. There are really only two possible explanations for this: Either musical director Eric Scott Anthony is a man of strange, diabolical genius, or else someone in casting is seriously connected. Probably a little of both. These people can simultaneously sing, play, dance, act, and horse around as well as anyone you’re likely to see on stage. And that’s to say nothing of their expertise in the art that conceals itself: getting to the right place at the right time in the right costume with the right instrument around your neck. Making all this work requires its own kind of genius, of course, and Director David Lutken (who also performs with great skill and charm), deserves tremendous credit, as does the technical staff.
What we get, then, is really a series of musical vignettes or, as Lutkin calls it in his program note, a “musical photo album.” That’s true in several respects. Certainly each song is treated as a distinct dramatic event, much like a snapshot; and the appearance and reappearance of the actors in various combinations within and across these events lends some sense of that continuity a family album might have if arranged in a certain way. Here, the arrangement is roughly thematic: something on the order of “Thanksgiving at Grandma’s” and “Susie’s Graduation” –– except it’s more like, “Songs About Killing” or “Songs About Being Poor As Job’s Turkey.” By far the most effective (and hence, entertaining) of these song-clusters is “framed” as an imagined program at The Grande Ole Opry. The actors portray a series of more or less competent acts who appear on the famous Nashville show. What works about this sequence is that, finally, the actors have a definite setting to work with, and a definite reason to be singing and playing. Behind the antiquated microphone, they all come alive. One of the younger actors, Megan Loomis, has a hilarious turn as a fiddle-playing bumpkin on stage apparently for the first time in her life.
But like snapshots too, the scenes are fundamentally static. Stuff appears to be happening in them, but they don’t actually lead anywhere. This explains on the one hand the tremendous effort put into keeping the pace and energy level up, and on the other the weird deadness that befalls the theatre in those few instances where the energy lags, if even for a moment. This is a show, in other words, that cannot afford not to keep the audience completely charmed –– and it knows it. Fortunately, Lutkin, Anthony and their collaborators succeed for the most part, and the show looks and sounds as well-rehearsed and professional as one could hope.
Nor can it hurt to be a Johnny Cash fan, which I assume many if not most audience members will be. There are a few numbers (including the very first), however, where it feels like we just ran out of ideas for staging, and even the music can’t entirely save the scene. Those moments aside, if there are flaws in the show, I would guess they lie in the concept itself. While the show’s original creators were correct not to write a role for “Johnny Cash,” we do hear a certain amount of voice-over material —apparently Cash’s actual words, but recorded by one of the cast. Though I understand the reasons for this choice, to my mind it represents a missed opportunity: How much more powerful would it have been to have Cash’s real voice — so inimitably truthful — growling from beyond the grave and out into the dark theatre? Such recordings exist, and could have been available. This would have been, I think, both a fittingly humble acknowledgement of Cash’s uniqueness, and a moving way to activate a deeper — dare I say “elegiac” –– level of response to the show. Cash was no saint, but he was as soulful as they come; and now that he’s gone, it’s his soulfulness that we want to remember. A show that celebrates his music should also find ways to remind us of this. As Cash himself well understood, the best entertainment is also the most truthful.
The show runs through May 24th at the Flat Rock Playhouse. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit their Web site here.
Director: David Lutken. Musical Director: Eric Scott Anthony. Choreography and Musical Staging: Sherry Stregack. Production Stage Manager: Bill Muñoz. Scenic Designer: Dennis C. Maulden. Lighting Designer: Robert P. Robins. Costume Designer: Janet Gray. Sound Designer: Hank Lueck. Cast: Ben Hope, Megan Loomis, David Lutken, Deb Lyons, Neil Friedman, Helen Russell, Eric Scott Anthony, Michael Hicks, John Rochette.