"Ring of Fire -- The Music of Johnny Cash" is not a biographical presentation along the lines of the popular 2005 motion picture "Walk the Line," which featured Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Instead, it is a "jukebox musical revue," staged in two acts as a succession of song-and-dance numbers with a live band on stage, in the tradition of the Grand Ole Opry.
Three men and four women make up the talented ensemble in Metropolis Performing Arts Centre's production. Although he is not credited as such in the program, Tommy Malouf plays Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, throughout the production. The remaining six performers portray various interchangeable characters, but Sari Greenberg takes on June Carter for most of the show. Not that there's really any in-depth characterization going on -- it's all about the music and having a good ol' time in the barnlike setting by Mitchell Ost.
"Ring of Fire -- The Music of Johnny Cash"★ ★ ★
Location: Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, (847) 577-2121, metropolisarts.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday (no show Aug. 18, additional 1 p.m. show Aug. 25); 8 p.m. Friday; 7 p.m. Saturday (no show Aug. 13); 3 p.m. Sunday, through Sept. 3
Running time: About two hours, with an intermission
Parking: Street parking and nearby public garage
Rating: All ages
And the music is indeed good. Each member of the ensemble has a terrific voice, with standouts being Greenberg, Brandy Miller and Jenna Payne. Malouf does a fine job providing the requisite baritone and charisma to carry off Cash's persona. The energy onstage is infectious as it heats up the theater with rhythm and melody.
"Ring of Fire" was originally conceived for Broadway by William Meade and created by Richard Maltby Jr., and then further adapted with many changes from the New York production by Maltby and Jason Edwards. Joe Keefe's direction at Metropolis (with associate Robin M. Hughes) emphasizes little vignettes that illustrate each musical number. The songs are presented somewhat chronologically, documenting Cash's early life on the farm in Arkansas during the Great Depression, to his early recording career, and finally to his superstar years.
So why does one of the ensemble portray Elvis Presley during the second song of the first act? This was so disorienting that it took a couple of more numbers before the show found its grounding and structure.
The inadequate theater program doesn't help. The ensemble is simply listed by name, not indicating any real people they might happen to portray during the show. More problematic is the lack of a song list. Even full-blown musicals list the musical numbers for each act. It would have been helpful, especially for audience members who might not know all the songs. (Another problem is that while the very talented "old timer" band, expertly led by David Welker, is listed by name, it would have been nice to know which instrument went with which musician.)
Nevertheless, the show is an audience pleaser, especially when the performers interact with the audience. The women's number, "Flushed From the Bathroom," provides some laughs at the expense of some folks in the audience who are picked out by the ladies. The expected hits -- "Ring of Fire," "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "A Boy Named Sue," "Jackson," "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Walk the Line" -- are all delivered with aplomb. Especially moving are the early gospel numbers such as "Sweet Bye and Bye" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." The ensemble's voices blend beautifully in harmonious rapture.
"Ring of Fire -- The Music of Johnny Cash" is an enjoyable live songbook for lovers of country music, fine singing, and, of course, the Man in Black.