Ring of Fire is more a concert than a play: a cascade of Johnny Cash songs, along with a few that he covered by others, played by expert and enthusiastic musicians who clearly love the man and his music as much as they love playing together — and playing for us.
Many jukebox shows like this use a performer’s songs to illustrate passages in his or her life, and there’s some of that in this Vintage Theatre production, but overall, Ring of Fire has only the thinnest of narrative lines. If you don’t know much about Johnny Cash’s life and didn’t see the well-reviewed biographical movie Walk the Line, or if you associate Cash primarily with performances in penitentiaries, black clothes and such breakout hits as “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire,” you won’t learn a whole lot more here. None of the five musician-singers assembled by director Kelly Van Oosbree singly represents Cash himself on stage — at various times, all the men do — and you only get sparse references to significant events rather than an ongoing storyline. What the production does communicate is the breadth of Cash’s songwriting genius.
The performers are all multi-talented musicians. Eric Weinstein, who plays banjo, guitar, piano and harmonica, is the music director. The other performers are Kurt Ochsner — the only member of the cast who doesn’t sing — on drums; Benjamin Cowhick on guitar and banjo; Ray Anderson, bass and piano; S. Parker Goubert on guitar; and Isabella Duran, who’s equally adept on mandolin, guitar, piano and fiddle. Also, she can yodel. The show is performed without mikes or any technical wizardry; it often feels like one of those great parties where the guests get up, singly and together, to entertain and show off their skills. In the intimate space of Vintage’s black box theater, the lack of amplification is welcome, and the show feels refreshingly authentic. But since the theater wasn’t specifically constructed for music, there is some unevenness in the sound: Whenever an actor turns his or her head to the side, the volume goes down a touch, and the words are harder to hear.
For many, Johnny Cash represents the soul of America — or at least the essence of a specific American experience. Cash was born in Arkansas in 1932; he and his family suffered the hardships of the Great Depression, scraping out a living on twenty previously uncultivated acres. When Cash was twelve, his older brother Jack was killed in an accident, and a day after this horrifying death, economic necessity forced the family back into the fields to pick cotton. The tragedy colored Cash’s entire life and explains the deep sadness suffusing many of his songs. He was drug- and alcohol-addicted. He identified with the down and out, and although he never spent time in prison himself (there were a few nights in jail), he was keenly aware of the suffering of those who did. He adopted black for his later-in-life wardrobe, explaining the choice in “Man in Black”: “I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town/I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime/But is there because he’s a victim of the times/I wear the black for those who never read/Or listened to the words that Jesus said.” His deep, resonant voice and tough, enduring persona added to the legend.
Each performer in Ring of Fire brings a specific personal quality to the composite portrait. Sung by the expressive Cowhick, “A Boy Named Sue” seems more the story of a youngster coming to terms with his masculinity than the satiric claim of a grizzled cowboy. Anderson’s deep baritone comes closest to Cash’s sound, bringing depth to the hymn “Sweet By and By.” “If I Were a Carpenter” — written by Tim Hardin but performed by Cash in 1970 — is a high point, sung with lighthearted humor by Duran and the versatile Weinstein. Duran is a gifted performer, joyful, warmly unpretentious, with a rich sweet voice. She can be funny, too, as she jokingly proved when her tongue got twisted on the tongue-twisting “I’ve Been Everywhere” and she managed to include all of us in her self-deprecating laughter.
By the end of the evening, the audience itself was on fire: whooping, hollering and clapping, and most were humming as they left.
Ring of Fire, presented by Vintage Theatre through August 6, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora,