OAKBROOK TERRACE, Ill.—Johnny Cash led a turbulent and fascinating life, but the musical “Ring of Fire” isn’t a complete biography of his life. That’s because Richard Maltby Jr. (“Ain’t Misbehavin,” 1978, and “Fosse,” 1999), the creator and producer of the jukebox musical, which opened on Broadway in 2006, believed that presenting the life story of Johnny Cash wouldn’t do justice to the country icon. He believed that Cash’s voice and his persona couldn’t be duplicated in a theatrical setting and that a dramatization would work better in film. It did in “Walk the Line,” the 2005 movie that traced the legendary singer’s early life.
An Engaging RevivalWell directed by Scott Weinstein at the Drury Lane Theatre, we get a look at Cash’s struggle, his hard-living, his disillusionment, his empathy with people who had been beaten down and were having a hard time surviving, and his rise up to spiritual redemption. These moments unfold with songs that evoke an insight into his desperation, his desire to find love, and his turn to faith and hope.
As the older Cash, Ron E. Rains narrates the show and is compelling as the thoughtful, wiser, man, who has seen it all and who is looking back at his younger self. As the younger bass-baritone Cash, Michael Potter comes through with an engaging zest, and when Mr. Potter and Mr. Rains come together on a song, it sounds as though the two men are melding their past and future together.
The show, which is set on a revolving stage, allows for the fast transitions of Cash’s life. The story begins with the older Cash strolling onto scenic designer Angela Weber Miller's set of a train depot, which then (with projections by Anthony Churchill) follows him from his farm to Southern country roads and to concert billboards.
Along the way, Cash recalls key moments from his past, such as his hardscrabble childhood on the family's Arkansas cotton farm; the death of his 14-year-old brother; the flood that swamped and destroyed the family land; the Sun Records’ contract that launched his career; and his Grand Old Opry debut where he met his second wife June Carter (given a nice turn by Aja Wiltshire).
Although there’s a minor reference to Cash's first wife, Viv (a terrific delivery by violinist/vocalist Elleon Dobias), most of the show consists of Cash’s concert-style performances of 30-plus songs, which are exquisitely sung by Mr. Rains and Mr. Potter, with the backup assistance of Erik Hellman, portraying guitarist Luther, and Roy James Brown playing bassist Marshall.
Although the rebellious, deep bass-baritone is primarily remembered as a country music star, his songs also spanned rock and roll, blues, ballads, and gospel. His songs highlight the low and high points of a life lived with fierce intensity.
Drury Lane’s production is a lovingly performed tribute to a music legend, with Chuck Mead’s musical direction that celebrates the legendary singer’s popular songbook of more than two dozen of his hit songs, which include “I Walk the Line,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “The Man in Black,” “Get Rhythm,” “Ring of Fire,” “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan,” “If I Were a Carpenter,” “Angel Band,” and more.
“Ring of Fire” is a musical journey about an extraordinary legend, a rebellious man who sometimes flouted rules, and who gave voice to a generation. But the inspirational show is also about family, love, and staying together. It’s about what holds us close in the face of hard times and a hard life. And it’s also a clap-along, foot-tapping, and mouthing-lyrics-to-the-songs good time.