The legend of singer Johnny Cash still looms large nearly a decade after his death, and a strong contingent of fans turned out for opening night of the Cash-based musical Ring of Fire, at the Manatee Players Riverfront Theatre. I doubt many of them were disappointed by this evening packed with memorable Cash and traditional tunes, about 30 in all.
Ring of Fire, created by Richard Maltby Jr. and conceived by William Meade, does not purport to tell the whole life story of Cash (much of which was so memorably portrayed in the film Walk the Line), although it does contain some of his own words about growing up poor in Arkansas, losing a beloved brother, meeting June Carter, performing at the Grand Ole Opry, etc. Rather, the cast members of Ring of Fire, each of whom also plays at least one instrument onstage, introduce themselves individually as they step out with those simple but iconic words, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” And then the songs themselves (under the lively and capable musical direction of Bobby Brader and the simple but effective stage direction of Preston Boyd) take us into the times and places of Cash’s career, from Country Boy to Five Feet High and Rising (as his farming family faces floods) to Straight A’s in Love (those Sun Records years with fellow performers like Jerry Lee Lewis) and beyond.
That means a mix of both straight-up country, a little rock, some more spiritual tunes, a couple of comedic numbers (Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart is a keeper) and of course, those prison songs for which Cash was famous. Accompanied by projected images of a country home and fields, Johnny and June, a chain gang, train tracks and the Man in Black in performance, the numbers do present a satisfying recollection of Cash’s musical legacy.
The cast is well suited to conveying the different aspects of Cash’s character and others around him. Mark Woodland, who also plays guitar, has the right physical presence and rumbly voice to suggest the older Cash, and he’s suitably scary-funny on the song Delia’s Gone, about a man who does away with a troublesome woman. John Barron (guitar and mandolin) teams nicely with Brittney Klepper on Carter-Cash duets including If I Were a Carpenter and Jackson. Cathy Baudrit-Noeth (bass) is believable both as a mother figure and a more seductive type. And Players newcomers Patricia Rogers (fiddle) and Sam Zouari (electric guitar and banjo) display their vocal styles to advantage on Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan and Folsom Prison Blues, respectively, with A Boy Named Sue thrown in for good measure by Zouari. Along with Brader on keyboards (and trumpet for Ring of Fire), drummer Paul Henry rounds out the orchestra, which certainly earns its applause.
Ring of Fire continues through April 15; for tickets, call 748-5875 or go to manateeplayers.com.