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Paulanne Simmons

The Man in Black Sparkles

"Ring of Fire" photo by Joan Marcus

"Ring of Fire"
Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th St.
Opened March 12, 2006
Tues.-Sat 8 p.m., matinees on Wed., Sat. & Sun. 2 p.m.
Buy "Ring of Fire" tickets
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons March 16, 2006

What is the best way to tell the story of a man whose life revolved around his music? William Meade and Richard Maltby, Jr., who conceived and created "Ring of Fire" respectively, obviously believe it's through his music.

Ring of Fire, coming so swiftly after the film "I Walk the Line," had to do something that was neither didactic nor emotional. In this case, that meant a show that is just as much about Johnny Cash, "The Man in Black" as it is about those who inhabit his songs--farmers, lovers, losers, murderers, prisoners, wanderers, men who battle floods or work on chain gangs, and most of all, men and women who, despite adversity, can still sing and dance.

Tony Award winner Maltby, who created the groundbreaking musical revue of Fats Waller's songs "Ain't Misbehavin'" back in 1978, directs. He has deftly brought order out of chaos under the umbrella theme of the singer/songwriter's journey (sound of trains predominate throughout). He strings together 38 songs written or sung by Cash, and he does this in such a way that their progression reveals the man and his legend, even though no actor actually portrays Cash.

Ring of Fire is performed by an ensemble of three men and three women who represent Cash and one of his women when they are in their 20s, 30s and 60s. The very talented musicians, playing an array of instruments that includes guitar, fiddle and mandolin, drift in and out of the scene and fill the stage with boisterous fun or solemn hope.

To facilitate the swift scene changes, projection designer Michael Clark creates the illusion of three dimensional sets on two screens that come together and move apart so fluidly and astonishingly the transitions become an integral part of the show.

Johnny Cash fans will doubtless have their favorite tableaux. But surely "While I Got It on My Mind," perhaps the sexiest waltz ever written; the ironic "Delia's Gone"; and the medley of prison songs, "Austin Prison," "Orleans Parish Prison" and "Folsom Prison Blues" will be high points even for those unfortunate few who have never heard Johnny Cash sing.

Johnny Cash sang songs that blurred the lines between or sat comfortably within many genres--country, folk, rock and roll, blues, rockabilly and gospel. Ring of Fire reflects the breadth of Cash's musical diversity. But the show also demonstrates the depth of those songs' lyrics--from the sensual "Flesh and blood needs flesh and blood. You're the one I need" to the melancholy "There's something about a Sunday makes a body feel alone" to Cash's explanation that he wears black "for those who never read or listened to the words that Jesus said."

The creators of Ring of Fire refer to their creation as "a book musical without a book." With Ring of Fire, they've shown that a book musical without a book can also convey a message.


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