‘Ring of Fire’ lacks soul of Johnny Cash’s life
By CATEY SULLIVAN For Sun-Times Media February 24, 2014 2:52PM
Cory Goodrich and Michael Monroe Goodman star in "Ring of Fire." | MICHAEL BROSILOW PHOTO
‘RING OF FIRE’
When: Through March 30
Where: Theatre at the Center,
1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, Ind.
Info: (800) 511-1552;
Run time: 2 hours, one intermission
Updated: March 4, 2014 6:05PM
Go into “Ring of Fire” expecting a glimpse into the genius and torment that defined Johnny Cash and you’re apt to walk away disappointed. Created by Richard Maltby and conceived by William Meade, the storytelling is all but absent as the show makes its way through more than 30 numbers from the Man in Black’s extensive songbook. Even for a revue — a genre where narrative and character development generally take a distant back seat to a jukebox worth of songs — “Ring of Fire” is thin soup. Directed by Brian Russell, with music direction by Malcolm Ruhl, this is a show that sounds terrific but falters whenever the music stops and the attempts at dialogue begin.
A big part of the problem is that Maltby and Meade barely offer a Cliffs Notes version of Cash’s life. Bullet points (“It was a Friday morning when the accident happened that took my brother”) are delivered in somber-bordering-on-somnambulant pronouncements that sound like lines from a middle school pageant.
Yet even though there’s not enough material to flesh out one Johnny Cash, Maltby and Meade inexplicably give us two. Young Johnny (Michael Monroe Goodman, as the up-and-coming Cash) and older Johnny (Kent M. Lewis, as the iconic country singer looking back on his life and career) both possess the rich, raw baritone needed to recreate Cash’s signature sound. But by having two Johnnys (who actually don’t look that much different in age), the character of Johnny Cash becomes diluted. And having them trade off verses with other band members who are instrumentalists first and vocalists second? That’s not a good idea.
Cash’s wife June Carter Cash (Cory Goodrich) is similarly underwritten and rather lacking in chemistry with either Johnny. And while Goodrich has a gorgeous soprano, it’s more suited to musical theater and operetta than it is to the emotive twanging drawl of Cash’s country. She brings down the house with “I’ve Been Everywhere,” but the song is a feat of (mightily impressive) technique rather than an exploration of the heart.
All that said, “Ring of Fire” is a perfectly pleasant way to spend a few hours and when the band gets cooking, they set all burners on high. The variety of music packed into the show is indeed impressive, ranging from spirituals to backwoods novelty numbers (“Egg Suckin’ Dog” is a hoot) to Cash’s indelible hits (Lewis absolutely nails “A Boy Named Sue.”) Goodrich, Goodman and Lewis often play their own instruments as well as singing, picking guitars, autoharps, banjos and mandolins and adding to the lively, multi-layered accompaniment.
As for that band, it’s a marvel: Greg Hirte unleashes a blaze of sound and fury on the fiddle; Ruhl keeps an infectious beat on upright bass; Bill Underwood makes the keyboard sing and Billy Shaffer keeps a mean beat on percussion.