Cash Call

The Man in Black rises in song at ATC

I reckon no matter where you come from or how sophisticated your taste in music, songs born from the heart, soul and great personal charisma of Johnny Cash have a way of wheedlin' themselves into you. You'd pretty much have to be dead if you didn't find yourself tapping your foot in appreciation.

The troubadour we know as Johnny Cash, he of deep voice and black wardrobe, sang the country blues, often grounded in the Christian hymns of his upbringing in rural Arkansas and Tennessee. And it is this Johnny Cash who is at the center of an energetic group of singers and musicians, and a much-abridged biography, now onstage at Arizona Theatre Company. Ring of Fire is an apt name for this musical entertainment honoring the man with feet of clay, whose life of troubles and talent have made him a legend.

There is really no justification for calling Ring of Fire a play. It's more of a musical revue, or what's known as a jukebox musical. In efforts to capitalize on an artist or group's musical body of work, the script is secondary and almost always feels contrived. It's there to justify or give shape to the staged numbers. 

The good news here is that efforts to bend Cash's life and work to create plot is limited. The weakest moments come early when members of the ensemble briefly take on actual characters, often with a character-turned-narrator. It may take a few minutes to warm up to what's on stage because we're in a sort of limbo, not quite sure what we've got. But beginning moments of any show are often difficult, as we work to understand conventions.

Here we get a concert with context, mostly. This show was adapted by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Jason Edwards from Maltby's original Broadway show, which had a discouragingly brief run in New York. After the opening, the script diminishes, probably intentionally, and we're treated to some fine actor-singer-musicians sharing their Cash appreciation. He's the inspiration for their talents and skills and passion for music. Trenna Barnes and Allison Briner-Dardene bring winning energy to their multiple roles, and although almost everyone in the group can play some sort of instrument, music director Jeff Lisenby leads the core musicians, and each gets a turn to shine.

This is where the production succeeds. "I Walk the Line," "Tear Stained Letter," "Folsom Prison Blues" and, of course, "Man in Black," are all there, as are tunes by other writers. ("Ring of Fire," you'll note, was penned by June Carter Cash.) Johnny Cash, the man and his 1,000 plus songs, has mythical quality; he is a symbol of the American Dream, country style. Born in Arkansas and raised in a poor family, he picked cotton with family members, endured tragedies, and showed early a talent for making music. His real success came slow, but when it did, he became a victim of booze and drugs. His hard drinking soured his relationship with his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, but they were committed to each other and persevered.

The ensemble gathered around this Ring of Fire is an eclectic bunch, and they give Cash's tunes a rowdy turn and a sweet sound. Cast members are not matched to characters in the program, and most members of the ensemble fill a variety of small roles. But as a group they make huge musical contributions, which is the true heart of the show. There is no attempt to present a dramatically realistic portrayal of Cash, although two of the actors represent him in a sort of younger/older version. Michael Monroe Goodman and Brian Mathis bring us more than a mere hint of the Man in Black.

There was a dark side to Cash, which he seemed to wear with humility, but without shame. His presence was strong and commanding. Unfortunately, we don't get a real sense of Cash's intensity and charisma in ATC's show. What we do get is an evening of the skills and talents of some very accomplished folks in the service of Cash's songs. Despite the style's limitations, this tribute to the Man in Black offers solid entertainment.

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