Ring of Fire: an anthology album live on stage

Photo by Brett Beiner

At first, I was surprised that I had never heard of the 2006 musical Ring of Fire, which is a celebration of the songs of Johnny Cash and is now being staged at Drury Lane Theatre. Then I saw it, and now I understand. While it is certainly enjoyable—how could a couple of hours spent listening to Cash songs not be?—it is ultimately forgettable. It is the very epitome of the phrase “jukebox musical”: a show devoid of any meaning except to provide a context for its songs. It is decidedly not a bio-musical: though it does contain a smattering of references to events in the artist’s life, there is nothing resembling plot and no attempt whatsoever to create characters. Heck, “Johnny Cash” never even appears on the stage!

The production, directed ably by Scott Weinstein, is basically a concert by six performers, two of whom (Ron E. Rains and Michael D. Potter) take the lead singing songs we remember like the title song, “I Walk the Line,” “Man in Black,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and even “A Boy Named Sue,” which makes for a fun and audience-pleasing coda. The songs are divided between Rains and Potter based, mostly, on whether they reflect a younger, more energetic (and, dare I say, rocking?) Cash (Potter) or an older, more reflective one (Rains). Both actors acquit themselves well and each has that signature bass country voice that made Cash famous.

It is Aja Wiltshire, though, singing as June Carter Cash, who really makes the most impact. After “playing” Cash’s mother in the early going—by which I mean singing parts that feel maternally connected to the artist—Wiltshire settles nicely into the shoes of the Carter Family darling who meets Cash on the stage of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry and captures his heart. We see her fun side in a solo Opry number called “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart” as well as numerous other songs showcasing the depth of the love she shared with Cash.

The other three performers onstage are all excellent as well. Most songs feature Elleon Dobias’ fiddle, which can range from playful to melancholy, and she gets a song of her own (“I Still Miss Someone”) as the pre-fame part of the show wraps up. Erik Hellman and Roy James Brown support the music and vocals, Hellman often playing electric guitar and Brown having a whale of a time on bass. (Brown’s tragicomic rendition of “Delia’s Gone” is a highlight of the show as well.)

Design elements are all on point from Angela Weber Miller’s set to Lee Fiskness’ lights to Izumi Inaba’s perfect costumes. Ray Nardelli’s sound design is also excellent, though there are a few spots when very low notes (especially from Brown) get lost. And Weinstein’s direction keeps everything moving and even manages to create some very emotional segments—difficult when no one is playing any actual characters—especially when Carter Cash dies.

No one is ever going to list Ring of Fire among the greatest jukebox musicals. However, it is undeniably fun to spend an evening with Cash’s music. If that is enough for you—and it should be—you’ll find Ring of Fire to be an entertaining evening. On the other hand, as my husband opined, “I’d rather spend my money on an anthology album.”

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