Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ring of Fire, Johnny Cash jukebox musical, delights at Porthouse

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Johnny Cash, “The Man in Black,” was noted as a somber singer of such songs as “I Walk the Line,” “If I Were a Carpenter,” and “Ring of Fire.”  The latter was chosen as the title for Richard Maltby, Jr.’s jukebox musical, now on stage at Porthouse Theatre, which loosely centers on the trials and tribulations of Cash’s life.  While not autobiographical, per se, there is enough of the tale of the man to gain an understanding of Cash, his music, his strong belief in social causes, and his personal problems.

Cash’s deep, calm bass-baritone voice set the gold standard for the sound for other male country music icons, making him one of the most influential musicians of the 20 th century.  He sold more than 90 million records worldwide.

Ironically, though most would identify the man as a country icon, his songs and sounds encompassed not only country music but rock and roll, alternative rock, rockabilly, blues, folk, gothic and gospel.  And, though he was noted for his sincerity, he also is identified with such ditties as “A Boy Named Sue,” “Egg Suckin’ Dog, and “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart.”

Born in 1932, in Kingsland, Arkansas, to Scottish and English parents, his family’s roots trace back to 11th century Scotland, where, to this day, locations such as Cash Loch (Lake) bear the family name.

Johnny was close to his older brother, Jack, who, in 1944, at the age of 15, was killed when he was pulled into a whirling saw blade at a mill where he was working.  The song, “Sweet Bye and Bye” was written in his memory.  This and other songs, such as “The Far Side Banks of Jordan” and “Why Me, Lord?” hint at the performer’s spiritual ties.

Cash served a stint in the Air Force, married young, had four daughters and divorced.   Following his service time, in 1955 he brazenly walked into the offices of Sam Phillips, the legendary owner and producer of Sun Records.  Phillips was responsible for finding and mapping the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.   Cash sang a gospel song, was told that Sun wasn’t recording gospel any longer and was supposedly sent away with the message, “go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell.”  Legend has it that Cash came back the next day with “Cry! Cry! Cry!,” which became a country hit parade success.

In the late 1950s the pressure of performing hit Cash and he started drinking and became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates.  Those demons, in spite of several attempts at rehab, shadowed him for the rest of his life.

The addictions created a frenetic creativity, which produced the likes of “Ring of Fire,” a crossover hit that reached No. 1 on the country charts and was in the Top 20 on the pop charts.

Interestingly, though he cultivated an outlaw image, he never actually served a prison sentence.  He did, however, feel a strong compassion for prisoners, and not only performed in many prisons, he performed songs such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” illuminating the need for prison reform.

By the early 1970s Cash had established his public image as “The Man in Black.”  Why did he perform in all black, including a long black knee-length coat?  It was probably good showmanship as well as a statement of opposition.  Other country singers wore rhinestone suits and cowboy boots.  How to be different?  Wear a somber color.  It was also his identification with the poor, hungry, his tie to the prisoners and his strong anti-Vietnam War stance which caused him to state that his clothing choice was worn “in mournin’ for the lives that could have been.”

He had a long term relationship with June Carter of the famed Carter Family.  They fell in love, married and had a son.  Their duet, “Jackson,” which closes the first act of Ring of Fire, reveals the inklings that became their life story, and foreshadowed the many duets the couple would perform.

Cash passed away on September 12, 2003, at the age of 71, supposedly from complications from diabetes.

“Ring of Fire” had a short run on Broadway in 2006.  It uses songs recorded by Cash between 1955 and 2002, both those he wrote and those written by other composers. 

The Porthouse production, co-produced with the CATCO Theatre, had an extended run in Columbus before being staged locally.  Under the direction of Steven Anderson, with high quality musical direction by Travis Smith, the production is creatively staged and well sung.   Anderson won the Times Tribute Award last year for his directing of Porthouse’s Violet.

Anderson’s concept alters the Broadway production by using only 5 performers (4 males—Brian Mueller, Travis Smith, Mathew Smolko, and David Goins) and a female—Amy Fritsche) instead of the six used in the Big Apple, where three heterosexual couples--young, middle-aged and older) sang the roles.

Anderson has all of the cast become “Johnny Cash,” singing Cash, June Carter and various band members, stressing the songs rather than who sung them.  The talented ensemble plays all of the music on electric guitars, banjo, washboard, harmonicas, ukulele, bass, piano, drum, tambourine, auto harp, spoons, metal pipes and chains.  No off-stage band is used.  All of the performances are top notch!

The cast was so proficient that listing the songs they each sang so well is impossible.  The up-beat “Get Rhythm,” the weeper, “Cry, Cry, Cry,” the pretty, “I Still Miss Someone,” the humorous, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” were the less well-known tunes that deserve recognition.

Special notice should be made of last year’s Cleveland Critics Circle Best Actress in a Musical, Amy Fritsche, for her performance in Violet, who will be appearing in Best Intentions at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as in London, in August.

Terry Martin’s set centers on a conceived barn with a wall on which various instruments are hung.  Jakyung Seo’s lighting effects help develop the song moods by creating the correct  emotional illusions.  While Nathan Rosmarin’s sound design makes for clarity of hearing and nicely inserted special effects.

The intimate Porthouse thrust stage is a perfect venue for the show…it makes the action up-close and personal and allows the cast and audience to interact.  (Many of the audience, obviously Cash fans, were mouthing the words to many of the songs.)

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  If you like jukebox musicals that concentrate on a series of songs, rather than developing a clear story line, are a Johnny Cash fan, want to see and hear a wonderful cast sing and play musical instruments at a high level of proficiency, and want to be in a theatre set within the lovely grounds of Blossom Center, Ring of Fire should be on your must see list

Ring of Fire runs until July 23, 2016 at Porthouse Theatre.  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE:  FOOTLOOSE, which proves that dancing can be a fun part of life, from July 28-August 14, 2016.  Curtain times are 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Blossom open 90 minutes prior to curtain time.