The first thing about “Ring of Fire” is that nobody tries to imitate the Man in Black. Thank the music gods for that. The cavernous voice, the rebellious yet humble vibe, the sense that he was always the coolest dude in the room — those things are beyond the grasp of mere mortals.
The jukebox musical, conceived by William Meade and created by Richard Maltby Jr., had a big Broadway debut in March of 2006, not long after the hit Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” with Joaquin Phoenix. It has since popped up around the country, now including the vibrant, five-person show that opened Friday night at Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland.
It’s a little dicey to say just what “Ring of Fire” is. It’s not a revue. It’s not a concert. And it’s certainly not a play.
It’s mostly just five musicians — four men and a woman — singing songs, most of them by Cash. Occasionally, two musicians will approach and make eyes at each other as if they are Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash. Or one will adopt a Cash persona for a brief moment of monologue. There’s no narration. There are lots of guitars.
The show includes funny songs (“Egg Suckin’ Dog,” “You Flushed Me From the Bathroom of Your Heart”), sentimental songs (“Daddy Sang Bass,” “I Still Miss Someone”), sin songs (“Delia’s Gone,” “Folsom Prison Blues”) salvation songs (“Sweet By and By,” “The Far Side Banks of Jordan”) and jukebox songs (“I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire”).
“Five Feet High and Rising,” which came early in the first set and was sung by the entire cast, was the moment the show took off, combining nostalgia and humor. “Sweet Bye and Bye” was, well, sweet, with singer Cat Greenfield strumming an autoharp as she sang with Brian Russell Carey and John Leistner, the only cast member who’d probably have memories of Cash before he was an old guy.
The closest the show comes to an extended narrative is a segment based on Cash’s 1955 visit to Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis, in which legend has it that Phillips told Cash he didn’t record gospel songs anymore, so he should write something else. In the segment, Russell, Phillip David Black and Sean Wolf Galuszka play a rather stiff “The Old Rugged Cross,” then come back with the infectious “Cry Cry Cry.”
The songs are all over the place. Early ones late in the show, late ones early, many of them not Cash compositions (the gospel chestnut “Oh Come, Angel Band,” Tim Harden’s “If I Were a Carpenter,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning, Coming Down”).
The show is an entertainment, and as such it dwells on the more upbeat side of the Cash story, with little hint of drugs or other dark matters of the soul.
The singing is good all around, the harmonies are rock solid, and if the guitar picking isn’t stellar, well, that’s OK, Cash wasn’t a stellar picker. Part of his charm was the spare, stripped-down sound. With simple strumming, and accompanied by the Tennessee Two, the voice and the stories held your attention.
And for the most part that’s the case here, aided by Carey’s ability to slip back and forth between guitar, piano and fiddle. But the mulit-instrumental championship goes to Greenfield, who played guitar, banjo, mandolin, autoharp and sang up a storm that would knock a possum off an Arkansas stump.
What emerges from all this is an expansive portrait of Cash’s America, a place of poverty and chance, humor and pathos, sin and redemption. Whether that place is or was real or not doesn’t matter. It’s a poet’s vision, and Cash was the poet, an American original.
Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at firstname.lastname@example.org.