"Ring of Fire" is an easy-going musical about a hard-living country music icon
September 20, 2017
Put together songs like “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” and a singer who hits the low notes like Johnny Cash and you’ve got a thigh-slapping hoedown playing in Norfolk.
“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” offers a sunny and superficial tribute to an American icon. It is sure to sell tickets and please the undemanding. Never mind that Cash, a bitter drama unto himself, is turned into a good ol’ boy, or that this “Ring of Fire” is hardly one that aims to burn.
It is a good deal closer to “The Lawrence Welk Show” than it is to the Grand Ole Opry. So be it. The audience gave it a standing ovation, which is the norm in Tidewater.
The Virginia Stage Company opened its 39th season with a crowd-pleaser.
As long as it is singing, “Ring of Fire” can pass – from vintage country to rockabilly, rock ’n’ roll, sorrowful ballads and gentle songs of love and deep faith. There are over 30 songs, though not all the music was composed by Cash. This is not a one-man show. The supporting cast has a surprisingly prominent, and sometimes grating, presence.
They are types rather than characters. Emily Mikesell serves as the matronly one . She, more than some others, suffers from uneven microphoning, but soars best with “Get Rhythm,” which, with her fiddling too, makes her welcome.
Gill Braswell is the requisite bearded, gritty one who does “Delia’s Gone,” a number about a former love whom the song’s narrator shot. Sean Powell has personality galore but is saddled with “Cocaine Blues” and “Straight A’s in Love.”
They play a number of string instruments, including an autoharp, along with the washtub and a refreshing moment of trumpet. (More brass might have helped.)
But a show that doesn’t have Cash himself sing “A Boy Named Sue” is taking chances. The novelty song is assigned, mostly, to the supporting voices.
The show stands or falls on the ability of Ben Hope to simulate Cash. There are moments when he hits it, but he mostly cops out with an approach familiar from other “juke box” shows: They are determined not to do an imitation but to capture the “essence” of the subject. Convenient.
Nostalgia helps a great deal. Hope wears the requisite black, but he is mostly sunny. I never, for a moment, believed this person would have killed a man in Reno “just to watch him die.” Hope has made something of a career out of these gigs – having also tackled, onstage, Elvis, George Jones, Woody Guthrie and Buddy Holly.
I first saw this show in 2006 on Broadway, where it ran only a few weeks. The present version is better because much of the excess has been cut, including a second actor who played the young Johnny.
Dramatically, it is a hodgepodge of bits that leave you knowing no more than when you entered. The traumas of Cash’s life are touched on in passing. His jail time is mentioned, but the charges are passed over.
The aim seems to be to program a song for each trauma. Johnny getting his hormones going results in “Straight A’s in Love.” Drug addiction queues up “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Further addictive tragedies get mere mention.
The death of his brother in a saw mill accident lends weight to the first act, which suffers from a malady common in this type of show: The hit songs don’t come until the second act. Until then, we get novelties like “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart” and “Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog.”
Katie Barton, who is the real-life bride of actor Hope, serves well as June Carter Cash, particularly in that she does not become overly cute. (It must have been tempting). She hits spot-on in the late numbers when she appears onstage with her star husband . It’s an effective counterpoint: the “good” woman taming the “wild” man. June died four months before Johnny, an event marked only by a sad song near the end.
Chronologically, this musical is all over the place. It’s not so much theater as it is a side act at an amusement park. But the songs are there, and no one has to think.
The new season at VSC is a varied one and includes the challenging Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Disgraced.”
In the meantime, this is the foot-stompin’ diversion it is meant to be. It is likely to deliver more of the cash than the Cash.