If you’re a fan of Johnny Cash or of Broadway musicals and you’ve never heard of Ring of Fire, don’t
feel left out. It has suffered a checkered history, but Lutken has long
been one of its champions. He appeared in the very successful original
production at Buffalo’s Area Stage as well as the New York City cast in
2006, where the show suffered harsh reviews and closed in a month. In
Auburn he serves as the co-director, along with choreographer Sherry
Stregack. Given the deeply felt emotion of the MGR production, and
smooth direction leading to bursts of wit, Ring of Fire could be
headed for a revival of fortunes. Although we cannot know the complete
production history, some of the Gotham complains about the show, like
“Where’s Johnny?,” appear to have been addressed.
Although the original concept for Ring of Fire came from
William Meade, Richard Maltby Jr., put it together. As the wordsmith
half of the creative team of Maltby and David Shire, he produced such
reviews as Closer Than Ever and Starting Here, Starting Now, upmarket shows that are routinely compared with the later works of Stephen Sondheim. On his own, he also wrote Ain’t Misbehavin’ on the music of Fats Waller and Fosse on the choreography of, yes, Bob Fosse. Funny, nobody complains that Fats Waller does not appear in Ain’t Misbehavin’ nor Bob Fosse in Fosse. And really, we wouldn’t want two hours and 20 minutes of Rich Little and Frank Gorshin wanna-bes.
As long as people ask about Johnny, however, Neil Friedman, a singer
of dignified means who sounds less like Cash than Lutken does, gives an
evocation. In the opening solo, “Let the Train Blow the Whistle,” and
leading the ensemble in “Hurt,” he dresses in black and evokes the
presence of Cash without quite mimicking him. Friedman is back again in
the second act with the autobiographical solo, “Man in Black,” his black
shirt gussied up with western paraphernalia. So that takes care of
honoring his presence. Elsewhere Friedman breaks out of that persona and
plays a passel of other characters in ad-hoc skits.
Maltby’s greater contribution to the show is to give it shape and a
subtle narrative line. The more somber first act gives us a recording of
the haunting whistle call of old-fashioned steam engines, suggested in
part by Cash’s having grown up by the tracks, i.e., in poverty.
Annastacia Storrie’s scenic design, ably lighted by Robert Frame,
continues to remind us of the high Y-armed sign of the railroad
crossing. That train journey may have passed through many sunny
intervals, an ABC-TV variety show, fame and fortune, but Cash continued
to be troubled by his own private demons, which led to substance abuse.
The railroad theme does not forbid such digressions as Hank Snow’s
trucker song, “I’ve Been Everywhere” because we and Maltby know where
the track leads: to death at age 71 in a ruined body.
If there is anything in Maltby’s book to make us uneasy, it would be
an excessive playfulness, especially in the second act. True, if Cash
could write “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart,” he’s the supreme
wit of country music as well as an incomparable self-parodist. But when Ring of Fire makes
cute and looks to be asking to be liked, we may indeed like the show
but it no longer feels like an evocation of such a hard-bitten Southern
Calvinist who sings often of prisons.
If Lutken is indeed the driving force behind the Auburn revival of Ring of Fire,
as it appears, he attracts talents who, like himself, span the distance
from Broadway to Nashville, Austin, Lubbock and the red states.
Red-haired Megan Loomis, who once performed as Mrs. Lovett in a John
Doyle production of Sweeney Todd, plays a mean bluegrass
fiddle while strolling the stage and cracking witticisms, as in “There
You Go.” And she wrings emotion from the country lament, “I Still Miss
Someone,” a duet with Ben Hope.
Tall brunette Deb Lyons also spans that musical bridge, having once appeared with the Ottawa National Symphony in Broadway Meets Country. Along
with heartbreaking solos like “Cry, Cry, Cry,” she wheels lightly
through those upper register trills, a cross between yodeling and
coloratura soprano. Fittingly, she authentically duets the June Carter
Cash half of the title song, “Ring of Fire.”
Some of the lighter songs are handled by blonde Helen J. Russell and
boyish Ben Hope, both of whom bring wider experience in country
repertory, from Hank Williams to Woody Guthrie. Their sense of fun rides
with a bit of self-mockery, as in Russell’s duet with Neil Friedman,
“My Old Faded Rose,” or Ben Hope’s “Straight A’s in Love.”
In a novel piece of blocking, the musicians who appear upstage,
Michael Hicks and John Rochette, break away from their instruments and
join the singers. That leaves music director Eric Scott Anthony with the
grotesque black humor of “Delia’s Gone,” a Johnny Cash composition with
Karl Silbersdorf and Richard Toop that seems removed from the rest of
the repertory, as Cash might have sung it.
MGR justly calls itself “Broadway in the Finger Lakes,” which means Ring of Fire is
a departure from norms, not just because it is not an established hit.
But given the Broadway experience of writer Maltby and director Lutken, Ring of Fire shows how the man in black sings to Broadway tastes.
This production runs through Oct. 9. See Times Table for information.