"Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash" at Sixth Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” by Richard Maltby Jr and William Meade

Sixth Street Playhouse’s GK Hardt Theater, Santa Rosa CA

Photo by Raina Chazankin

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” at Sixth Street Playhouse’s GK Hardt Theater is not a concert, and it’s not a revue. It’s more a musical biography, a “jukebox musical” that tells Cash’s story with classic country songs, along with projected family photos and short black-and-white film sequences. Informed by Johnny Cash’s compelling everyman rags-to-riches story, it’s an enjoyable show with heart and high spirits.

Based on songs written or performed by Cash, it seeks to capture his essence, his inner soul. Cash’s music is known for its wrenching, startling honesty. He and Bob Dylan had great mutual admiration for each other’s work. Dylan considered Cash’s lyrics “deep and rich, awesome and mysterious, all at once”.

Beginning in 1998, producer William Meade spent five years trying to convince Mr Cash to permit the use of his songs for a show he had in mind. Shortly before his death in 2003, Cash agreed, and the concept for “Ring of Fire” was born. The show itself was created by director Richard Maltby Jr, most noted for his Tony Award-winning shows “Ain’t Misbehavin”, based on the music of Fats Waller, and “Fosse”. Buffalo, New York saw the “Ring of Fire” world premier in the fall of 2005, with a Broadway opening in March the following year at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.

Malby’s original intent for the show was to present six singers as three couples: three men and three women – young, middle-aged and older - in different stages of life together. Through them, and Cash’s music, we are to see aspects of our own lives, but also, according to Maltby, to see “the contours” of Cash’s biography in the show.

Sixth Street director Michael Fontaine has veered somewhat from the original concept. He reduced the number of songs from the original 38 down to 34, and has increased the singers from six to seven – four men and three women - who seem to represent different aspects of Cash, or Cash’s life. It’s not clear, and this lack of focus runs throughout the show. A quartet of musicians performs onstage with the singers.

Several Cash songs with humorous lyrics bring laughs: “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart” and “A Boy Named Sue” among others. Many romantic and sorrowful ballads in Cash’s repertoire are also presented, including the standards “I Walk the Line”, “Jackson” and of course, “Ring of Fire”.

The show opens on a weak note. The burden of storytelling falls to the seven singers, with inconsistent vocal quality from all but two. The results are uneven, and in places the show actually limps, never really hitting its stride. The Cyclorama upstage was not used to its fullest effect, and the staging could have been better, given architect Paul Gilger’s outstanding set design, which gives the production a truly professional look and feel. Lighting, while good, could have been better utilized, especially in dramatizing moments from Cash’s boyhood, with the possible exception of some authentic lightning flashes during “Five Feet High and Rising”, which describes a storm and flood.

There are glimpses of the show it could have been: rousing, foot-stompin’ “yee-haw” moments for sure, and emotional poignancy that rides almost entirely on the broad shoulders of Cash’s music. Despite its lapses, whether you’re a fan or just like a good show, “Ring of Fire” is worth seeing, just for the “deep and rich, awesome and mysterious” music of Johnny Cash.

When: January 14 to February 13, 2011
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
8 p.m. Thursdays January 20 and 27, February 3 and 10
2 p.m. Saturdays January 22 and 29, February 5 and 12
2 p.m. Sundays January 16, 23 and 30, February 6 and 13
Tickets: $15 to $39
Location: 6th Street Playhouse – GK Hardt Theatre
52 West 6th Street, in Santa Rosa’s historic Railroad Square
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com