Let’s begin with what this 2006 jukebox musical is not. It is not a rich, textured, nuanced, moving, memorable musical biography of Johnny Cash. It does not attempt to do onstage what the rousing, Academy Award-winning 2005 movie, I Walk the Line, did on the silver screen: bring us Cash in his power and glory and messy complexity. Instead, William Meade, who is credited with “conceiving” this show, and Richard Maltby Jr., who “created” the show, and directed the unsuccessful Broadway production (it ran for only 57 performances and 38 previews), have given us a concert of songs, many of them written by Cash, all of them associated with him, interspersed occasionally with snippets of information about Cash’s life and times.
Ring of Fire
Through 10/22: Wed 1:30 PM, Thu 1:30 and 7 PM, Fri 7 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 6 PM; Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, 630-530-0111, drurylanetheatre.com, $85.75-$96.25 (Thu-Sun evenings $91, $5 discount for senior citizens Wed and Thu matinees)
Or I should say, information about a performer named “Johnny,” the bare outlines of whose life—from hardscrabble childhood and working the cotton fields with his dirt poor family to his rise to superstardom, with stops at the Sun Studios in Memphis and Folsom Prison—resemble Cash’s life more than a little.
Why Maltby and company decided not to go whole hog and give us an evening of full-strength Johnny Cash, I don’t pretend to know. In the current Drury Lane revival (directed by Scott Weinstein), Ron E. Rains does a pretty good job playing Johnny, and the band does a credible job playing an assortment of lesser-known tunes (“Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog” and “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart”) and bona fide hits (“Man in Black,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and the titular song). But the show lacks, well, fire.
This is largely because, despite Rains’s mighty efforts onstage to embody the man and the legend, Cash is not fully present here. There are some sparks when Johnny is accompanied onstage with the show’s June Carter stand-in. Aja Wiltshire just kills as June, perfectly recreating Carter’s fascinating, winning stage persona, at once a sweet, goofy down-home girl and a luminescent stage presence.But in the end, Ring of Fire is one of those mildly entertaining evenings that leaves you hungry for some real theater with a real story and real memorable characters.