<em>Ring of Fire</em>&nbsp;at WaterTower Theatre

Review: Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash | WaterTower Theatre

Back in Black

At WaterTower Theatre, five actors playing instruments deliver the universality behind Johnny Cash songs in Ring of Fire

published Thursday, October 13, 2016

Photo: Karen Almond
Ring of Fire at WaterTower Theatre


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).

Photo: Karen Almond
Ring of Fire at WaterTower Theatre

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. Thanks For Reading

View the Article Slideshow
Click or Swipe to close
Back in Black
At WaterTower Theatre, five actors playing instruments deliver the universality behind Johnny Cash songs in Ring of Fire
by Sophia Dembling

Share this article on Facebook
Tweet this article
Share this article on Google+
Share this article via email
Click or Swipe to close
Click or Swipe to close
views on theater, dance, classical music, opera and comedy performances
news & notes
reports from the local performing arts scene
features & interviews
who and what are moving and shaking in the performing arts scene
season announcements
keep up with the arts groups' upcoming seasons
listen to interviews with people in the local performing arts scene
media reviews
reviews and stories on performing arts-related film, TV, recordings and books
arts organizations
learn more about the local producing and presenting arts groups
performance venues
learn more about the theaters and spaces where the arts happen
keep up with fabulous ticket giveaways and other promotions
connect to local arts crowdfunding campaigns
post or view auditions and performing arts-related classes, services, jobs and more
about us
info on TheaterJones, our staff, what we do and how to contact us
Click or Swipe to close
First Name:
Last Name:
Date of Birth:
ZIP Code:
Your Email Address:
Click or Swipe to close
Join TheaterJones Around the Web

Follow Us on Twitter

Subscribe to our Youtube Channel

Click or Swipe to close
Search the TheaterJones Archives
Use any or all of the options below to search through all of reviews, interviews, features and special sections. If you are looking for a an event, use the calendar section of this website. This search will not search through the calendar.
Article Title Search:

Description Search:
TheaterJones Contributor:

TheaterJones Section:

Showing on or after:      Showing on or before:  
Click or Swipe to close
We welcome your comments

I am discussing:  

Your Name:
Your Email Adress:

please enter the text below and then click or tap SUBMIT :