“Ring of Fire” has been described variously as a jukebox musical, or a musical revue. It’s much more the latter, as 31 songs and a dash of narrated history remind us in the most rudimentary sense of who Johnny Cash was. The show holds up a mirror to Cash’s 71 years and lets his life reflect back in song. The tunes and words illumine highlights and lowlights in Cash’s life and suggest he wrote his history not in reportage but in musical cadences.
Director Richard Maltby created this show for a 2006 Broadway run, and the production now playing at Plymouth Playhouse makes it easy to see why New York turned a cold shoulder to the original. Curt Wollan’s staging is homespun, confident in voice and well-executed. But “Ring of Fire” would evaporate in a room larger than the 200-seat suburban theater (and at Broadway prices? Yikes).
In these confines though, Wollan’s cast — nearly all of whom play an instrument at some point — find the right twang and heart of songs about heartache, humor and dollops of booze, drugs and guns. No one portrays Cash, per se. The eight players trade off narration that is patched in among 31 songs — from such early hits as “Five Feet High and Rising,” “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line” to “If I Were a Carpenter” and “Jackson,” which Cash made famous with his wife, June Carter Cash.
The women in “Ring of Fire” fare best, if only that we don’t expect them to sound like Cash. We do sort of itch to hear a man get really close to Cash’s voice. In fairness, though, the show never promises that and was not built for a great impression (such as the Patsy Cline vehicles).
Steve Lasiter does the best job of finding Cash’s rhythms and inflections, with Chet Wollan a close second. Candice Lively and Brittany Parker have great country voices and Amberly Rosen shows off exceptional chops on the fiddle.
Lively has several spotlight numbers, including a heartfelt “I Still Miss Someone.” Parker has a touch more flint in her voice and spins off a comic turn as Minnie Pearl, the Grand Ole Opry legend.
Wollan’s show looks good, with Susan Holgersson’s railroad-bridge set and Katrina Benedict’s varied and precisely imagined costumes. Students of Johnny Cash will find nothing revelatory, but anyone interested in country-western music should have a good time.