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Songs, not story,
drive Cash's Broadway musical

"Ring of Fire"
Rialto Square Theatre
Joliet, IL
Jan. 7, 2008
Ring of Fire Ring of Fire Ring of Fire

Story and photos by Andy Argyrakis

In the wake of the blockbuster biopic "Walk the Line" and a plethora posthumous Johnny Cash projects, a Broadway musical could easily seem like it was tapping the well just one too many times. But just before The Man In Black died, he gave conceiver William Meade the blessing to use his songs, which have since emerged in a "Ring of Fire" run throughout the Big Apple and subsequent tour. Though the timing may look suspicious, the concept actually started brewing over six years ago, but finally came into fruition in 2006 (after "Walk the Line" already broke box office records).

Rather than duplicating the movie's graphic depictions of Cash's storied life, "Ring of Fire" seeks to revitalize his songs in the increasingly popular "jukebox musical" format that's fueled the Billy Joel-inspired "Movin' Out," the ABBA-themed "Mamma Mia" and the Four Seasons-focused "Jersey Boys" (minus the biographical details). Though a logical concept on paper, the plot left a lot to be desired, simply because there was barely any time for dialogue amidst the thirty-four classic tracks. And even odder was the fact that not one person in the sixteen member cast played the role of Cash, instead taking turns singing the songs (and serving up southern dance steps during their breaks).

So without a standout principle character and only a few seconds of chatter alluding to a family working in a cotton field, a young man demonized by drugs and spiritual rebirth (all of which paralleled Cash's life without directly referencing it), there was literally no script to latch onto. Perhaps producers would've been better scrapping those teases all together and retooling the show as a straight on tribute concert, especially because the deft instrumentation and impressive vocal presentations were just as flattering as they were entertaining.

In fact, the set list was literally a Cash fan's ultimate fantasy, cruising through several top hits, deeper cuts and gospel romps, aptly summarizing the seminal superstar with additional ambiance from the historic and acoustically enriching Rialto. The first act featured the full cast jubilation of "Five Feet High and Rising," "Daddy Sang Bass" and the evening's title track, though a raucous version of "Jackson" truly brought the house down and alluded to what would come around the corner. The second half fittingly grouped together several emotions, such as the rabble rousing "Cocaine Blues" and "Folsom Prison Blues" to the more social/spiritually focused "Man In Black" and "Why Me Lord?"

"Ring of Fire" wrapped with a true to form take on the epic "A Boy Named Sue," plus a dramatic rendering of the spoken word poem "Ragged Old Flag." The grand finale of "I've Been Everywhere" also went out with a bang thanks to a complete troupe sing-a-long, backed by sixteen simultaneously strumming guitars. Clearly these moments showcased the cast's overall talent and reverent nature towards the material, but without possessing a clearly focused thesis, the play isn't likely to stand-up with the same stamina as its aforementioned peers.

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