Two parallel, life-size steel rails atop wooden ties sprawl across scenic designer Jason Bolen’s atmospheric set and are thrust out into the Cortland Repertory Theatre audience for Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash. We often hear the far-off call of old-fashioned steam locomotives, since this is a show about traveling and loneliness. But it is also about speed: Ring of Fire gets right into the music and squeezes 32 songs in less than two hours with an intermission.
Not to be confused with a PBS documentary, creator Richard Maltby Jr.’s Ring of Fire has precious few spoken words and there are no names or dates to remember. At the curtain’s rise, four men (Diego Diaz, Nathan Yates Douglass, Todd Meredith and Davey Rosenberg) and two women (Reanna Flemons and Cat Greenfield) all raise their hands and say individually, “I am Johnny Cash.” Every singer also carries and plays an instrument, including guitars, bass, banjo, autoharp, washboard, spoons and fiddle.
It quickly emerges that Todd Meredith is the first among equals with several distinctive solos, “Straight A’s in Love” and “Cry, Cry, Cry.” Meredith is a company favorite, having set a box office record with last summer’s Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story and also raising oodles of dollars with his Holly tribute band The Rave-Ons during a May fund-raiser. Even without the glasses, Meredith still looks and sounds like Buddy Holly, which does not matter at all. Ring is a tribute to Johnny Cash, who indeed wrote or co-wrote 17 of the numbers, and performed all the others. In the second act all the players don black, and Davey Rosenberg respectfully evokes something of Cash’s timbre, including, fittingly, “Man in Black.”
The show is a feast for country music lovers but also offers treats for those who just go along for the ride. Cash’s most charming side is self-parody, as in “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart,” wryly warbled by lovely Cat Greenfield. Fervent word-of-mouth for Ring of Fire, ably directed by Brian Swasey, has led to many sellouts for Cortland Repertory’s season finale, so it would be prudent to call the box office for ticket availability for the remaining performances.
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash runs Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Thursday, Sept. 11, through Saturday, Sept. 13, 7:30 p.m., at Cortland Repertory Theatre, 6799 Little York Lake Road, Preble. For tickets, call (607) 756-2627 or (800) 427-6160.