Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash. Created by Richard Maltby Jr., conceived by William Meade. Sherry Lutken directed. Peoples Light & Theatre Company, Malvern, PA.
Just as its title indicates, Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash offers the man’s songs, and does not claim to be his biography. We hear Cash’s concerns about family and disadvantaged people in a generalized way, in songs that range from humorous to heartfelt. The production features a nine-person cast where everyone sings and plays multiple instruments.
The result is an enjoyable hootenanny.
Instead of one actor playing the part of Cash, his songs are distributed among three men, and they’re joined by partners: Sam Sherwood and Nyssa Duchow are a young couple, David M. Lutken and Deb Lyons are middle aged, and Neil Friedman and Helen Jean Russell are older, with Scott Sowers replacing Friedman for the final week of the run.
Each cast member plays numerous instruments and they put on a grand show of switching around. Three of them take turns on the drums. One person moved from keyboard to acoustic bass to guitar to trumpet. Others played harmonica, violin, mandolin, zither and washboard.
The priority of songs, rather than biographical drama, disappointed the New York Times critic when the show played briefly on Broadway. But if you accept its premise, Ring of Fire is an appealing two hours of entertainment.
Cash’s material went far beyond the stereotype of “country” music. Nineteen of the 38 songs were written (or co-written) by Cash. Almost all of the rest were recorded by him. The exceptions were “I’ve Been Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” and “Egg Suckin’ Dog”, two corny non-Cash songs that were included, according to the show’s creator Richard Maltby Jr., to illustrate how Cash raised the level of this genre above the previous standards on Grand Ole Opry.
His empathy for ordinary folks — “workin’ hard and feelin’ tired” — is palpable. Act I is mostly sunny and homespun, while Act II reveals that Cash had a drug problem, and illustrates his compassion for incarcerated men in “I’ve Got Stripes”, “Orleans Parish Prison” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
I do regret some missed opportunities. For instance, the title song was co-written by June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore and recorded by Johnny Cash in 1963. “Ring of fire” referred to falling in love, specifically what June Carter was experiencing with Johnny Cash at the time. He was married to Vivian Liberto, who claimed in her book, I Walked the Line, that Johnny wrote it “while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part” and she alleged that he gave the writing credit to June “because she needed the money.”
Liberto’s bitter and colorful claim surely makes a dramatic story, but that’s not what this musical aimed for. Its script makes no mention of Vivian or June, nor of daughter Rosanne Cash.
Vivian, Cash’s first wife — based on photographs — appears to be dark and Hispanic, and such a union would have been controversial in Cash’s homeland of northeastern Arkansas in that time. That’s another cue for drama, should anyone care to write a different play, although it’s not the province of this one.
Cash became identified as The Man in Black, because that was all he had available when he got his first opportunity to sing in public, and he continued because, he said, dark clothes were easier to keep looking clean. But he turned his choice of attire into an anthem that resonates even more loudly today, as America’s prison population soars:
“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.”
Upon reflection, there’s drama aplenty within the lyrics of the songs that he chose to sing.
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