I guess I should start by saying: 1. I’m not a huge fan of Country Music but I’m not so perverse that I’ll fight a good time at the theatre. 2. I may be bit spoiled by current phenomena like Lost Highway (Hank Williams) and Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons) that take more trouble to create a contextual narrative for the songs we’re hearing. Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, is quite enjoyable, with some anecdotes along the way, though it doesn’t dramatize any events from Cash’s life. The stories we do hear are key, the destitution of of Cash’s family as they manage a farm, the early death of one of Cash’s brothers, the first meeting between Johnny and his “future bride.” To be fair, it works pretty well, the explanations of why he feels for the guys in prison, his struggles with drug abuse, his cockiness while courting, because the actor/musicians have a gift for animation, and we realize the stories come from Cash himself.
I was frankly surprised that I liked Ring of Fire as much as I did, and it gave me a chance to consider the strength of country songs. For some reason, the singers can be very earnest and direct when they talk about God or loneliness or misery or deep wanting. They’re not afraid or ashamed to own their weakness or need or despair, very openly. When Cash sang, “I Walk the Line,” he concedes he’s behaving himself because he can’t lose his honey. Because you’re mine, I walk the line. Iggy Pop might sing, “I Want to be Your Dog.” [Sometimes I know just how he feels.] Country Music can discuss raw pain in ways that we might otherwise think is corny, or just excessive, but the genre seems to make it work. They can talk about being carried to the far bank of the River Jordan, or meeting those they lost to death when they make that last trip themselves. And it’s genuinely moving. You feel ridiculous, but the tears roll and it’s just fine.
The cast/music makers: Spencer Baker (Eddie) Ian Ferguson (Mark) Sonny Franks (David) Katrina Kratzer (Trenna) Brian Mathis (Jason) are jovial and spontaneous. They break up interpretation from song to song and know how to bring that shine, luster and presence to the stage. When the mood becomes somber or regretful they accommodate this with skill and respect. Director B. J. Cleveland Music Director (Sonny Franks) have brought out the most from this material with poise and freshness. The performers instinctively connect with audience, they are lively, relaxed and happy to share their gusto.