Addison — There is a man in black on stage at WaterTower Theatre for Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, but Brian Mathis is not exactly portraying the original man in black, except sometimes. He’s identified in the program as Jason, and he’s also the show’s narrator, and at one point he’s famed Memphis producer Sam Phillips. Ring of Fire is less a musical biography than a sort of collage, loosely representing the life of the late music legend through his songs while suggesting the universality of the sentiments behind the lyrics.
Ring of Fire was created by Richard Maltby Jr., conceived by William Meade and orchestrated by Steven Bishop and Jeff Lisenby. The jukebox show did a brief stint on Broadway in 2006, but then was scaled down to five actors who would also play the insstruments, particularly well-suited to the intimacy of a small house like WaterTower, which is presenting the regional premiere of this version (the larger version was done in 2012 at Casa Mañana).
This production is directed by B.J. Cleveland (in his WaterTower directorial debut), with musical direction by Sonny Franks, who also appears on stage as David; the cast also includes Spencer Baker as Eddie, Ian Ferguson as Mark, and particularly delightful Katrina Kratzer as Trenna and sometimes June Carter and also, sort of, Vivian Liberto Distin, Cash’s first wife.
Warm but simple set design by Bradley Gray and lighting by Leann Burns, using minimal props, multi-hued lighting and silhouettes, are big players in the pleasure of this good-looking show. Audiences arrive and leave with the image of a guitar propped on a chair, center stage, a starkly perfect representation of the man who made the music.
You’re best, however, to release any need to see Cash channeled through this production and instead simply allow the engaging cast to take you through the 34 stellar songs (not all by Cash, but all recorded by him) that are the backbone, heart and soul of the show. Accompanying themselves on guitar, fiddle, banjo, bass, harmonica and a little brass in “Ring of Fire”; and, at one point, a metal chair, the cast sings with serviceable voices, but none comes close to the power and gravitas of the man himself. It’s impossible to imagine anyone on the stage shooting a man “just to watch him die”—least of all affable Spencer Baker, who sings the line in “Folsom Prison Blues.” And Mathis and Kratzer do a lovely job with “Flesh and Blood,” but it doesn’t touch the visceral profundity of Cash’s gravelly bass growling the same words.
The cast is at its finest in five-part harmonies, such as “Daddy Sang Bass,” and at those times, the auditorium fairly shakes with all the audience toe-tapping. And while adorable in her lighter moments with fiddle and twinkling eyes, Kratzer particularly shines when she goes high lonesome with songs such as “I Still Miss Someone.”
The show doesn’t skip over the darker, drug-addled chapter of Cash’s life—Ferguson ably takes us there with “Sunday Morning Coming Down”—and the heartbreak of saying goodbye in “Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan.” But you’ll leave smiling after Mathis and Franks wrap things up with “A Boy Named Sue.”
By halfway through the first act of this lively production, you’ll give up the notion of seeing anyone on stage deliver what Johnny Cash could—and relax into the pleasure of fine songwriting served up with energy and abundant charm.