“Ring of Fire,” the Broadway musical production that recently brought “the music of Johnny Cash” to The Robinson Auditorium, turned the Man in Black’s biography into a strange Disneyworld. More than 30 of Cash’s songs were performed around a loose story line, aiming to tell the tale of his life and his times with June Carter.
The glossy production may have been safe — with its bombastic vocals, standard harmonies, and neat choreography — but it tore the heart out of a body of work tirelessly shaped with nothing but heart. The musical was reminiscent of the recent Cash biopic, “Walk the Line,” no doubt hoping to ride the film’s coattails through the public’s mind and straight into the box office till. But if this was “the music of Johnny Cash,” it was in copyright only, Cash bleached and whitewashed.
The one gem of the production came from Julie Meirick. Set at the Grand Ol’ Opry, her performance of “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart” was accomplished, both humorous and endearing.
Throughout the production, cast members delivered monologues touching upon various aspects of his life as if they were Johnny Cash. Then, in true Broadway style, they burst into songs meant to flesh out the narrative. The cast’s rendition of “Five Feet High and Rising” highlighted Cash’s early years working the cotton fields alongside his family. As with most of the songs performed, the production added little to bring alive the spirit of the tale, nature’s way of both blessing and cursing the lives of farmers. Simply listening to the original record in one’s living room would convey more of the song’s soul, and cost much less than a theater ticket.
“Sunday Morning Coming Down,” a lonesome song about addictions and the pains of isolation, was slicked up to sound like a would-be Celine Dion hit. Sung by three different women, whose strong, well-trained voices ladled out affectation as they sang the number’s “I’m wishing, Lord, that I was stoned,” one wondered if perhaps Johnny Cash is becoming the very thing he railed against all his career — an insider, institutionalized, tamed.
One was simply left wondering, what was the show’s aim? If not for the fresh interpretation of the work of one of America’s most original artist, if not to manipulate the emotive power a great biography can wield, then why? The answer can only be the main impetus behind any endeavor uninterested in shedding new, and creative, light on a subject: opaque, empty entertainment, whose overarching aim is to make someone some money.
— Dolores Alfieri