Whether you call yourself a Johnny Cash fan or not, chances are at least one of the songs in Ring of Fire, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre, will take you to a special place or moment in your life, or just touch you in a way you might not expect.
And whether or not you saw the 2005 film Walk the Line, in which Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon depicted Cash and wife June Carter Cash, chances are, too, that you’re familiar with the broad outlines of Cash’s life, from hardscrabble childhood to first recordings in Memphis in the 1950s to hit TV show and, sadly, drug addictions picked up during a life on the road.
You’ll get glimpses of that life in Ring of Fire, created by Richard Maltby Jr. and conceived by William Meade (with sone adaptations since the original Broadway show by Maltby and Jason Edwards). It starts near the end of Cash’s life, with the lonesome sound of a train whistle that will be taking him on the next stage of his journey—the afterlife—and soon flashes back to his earliest days in Arkansas. There his parents and especially his older brother, who tragically died young, played a big role in forming the man and musician Cash would become.
We get a brief appearance by his first wife, Vivian, who’s soon made unhappy by the plight of a musician’s spouse. We later meet real-life people from other eras of Cash’s career, from Grand Ole Opry stalwart Minnie Pearl to young convict Merle Haggard.
But much of the show centers on the love story of Johnny and June, while also offering snippets of how the duo (Scott Moreau and Elizabeth Nestlerode) performed onstage together well before their offstage relationship truly began. June’s gift for comedy, as well as her compassion for the troubled Cash, are given the opportunity to shine.
As Cash himself, Moreau, who has played the singer-songwriter many times before, is obviously right at home as the Man in Black. He may not really look that much like Cash, but he conveys both the swagger and the vulnerability of the man as well as his deep voice.
Indeed, it would be hard not to be impressed by the talents of all in the five-member cast, who not only sing and act but play a number of instruments, switching from one to another smoothly while staying in character. It’s sweet to watch the Cash family of the 1930s and 1940s, listening to gospel music on the radio and themselves performing numbers that also tell their story, like “Five Feet High and Rising” or “The Far Side on the Banks of Jordan.” There’s also a rousing delivery of the racier “While I’ve Got it on My Mind” by Katie Barton and Eric Scott Anthony (who doubles as music director) that’s an audience pleaser.
Moreau, naturally, is center stage much of the time, but Morgan Morse has more than a moment in the spotlight delivering “Folsom Prison Blues” (in the persona of Haggard). Nestlerode has fun with “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart” and pairs well with Moreau on the title song, “Jackson” and “If I Were a Carpenter.”
The songs are plentiful, from light (“A Boy Named Sue”) to dark (Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”). With fellow sometime Cash portrayer Ben Hope directing, Ring of Fire is a well-oiled machine delivering Cash hits—and an impressive fast-paced closer of “I’ve Been Everywhere” by the cast.
Ring of Fire continues through June 26. For tickets, call (941) 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.