By Betsy Wolfe
At first blush, opening night of the Metropolis Performing Arts Center’s summer offering, Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, was impressive.
The show created by Richard Maltby Jr., conceived by William Meade and originally produced on Broadway in 2005 (synopsis may be found here) opened its Arlington Heights run to a near full house in the 309-seat auditorium. Right away it’s easy to be impressed with the vision created by scenic designer, Michael Ost. Creative rustic lighting hangs high above the gallery and the rounded stage edge. The stage dressing bears reference to the Grand Ole Opry with its bright red barn backdrop and strings of exposed light bulbs, country instruments and paraphernalia hanging over the stage. The bandstand at center stage is constructed of crates and hay. All this creates a wonderful playground for an eagerly anticipated Johnny Cash extravaganza.
The band starts the show with the intro to “Country Boy.” Consisting of virtuosic electric and acoustic guitar, electric bass, drums, keyboard, washboard and a mean harmonica, these clearly experienced musicians deliver throughout the night. Surprisingly, there is no steel guitar or standing bass.
From the moment the actors come on stage and through the entire first act, it’s difficult to follow what’s happening. The original Broadway version had three couples, each representing a different era in the music of Johnny Cash. Early critics of the Broadway opening took issue with there being no one Johnny Cash character, and no scene work which tells much of the Cash biography. The three couples loosely portray aspects of the lives of Cash and his wife, June Carter, using sparse dialogue as a device to move from song to song in a revue format. The show only lasted 56 performances before closing.
If only that was the single issue with the Metropolis version. This production casts three males and four females, not paired into consistent couples. Essentially the performers in this show are all equal ensemble members, not representing particular eras. The ensemble members wear various jewel tones, while Tommy Malouf is dressed in black. He speaks some narration as if he is Johnny, but then confusingly, in the same costume, joins the chorus and at times acts out other characters of the songs. Sar1 Greenberg is the only female with additional non-ensemble costumes, and appears to be the main “June” who pairs in some duets with Malouf.
Like Malouf, she performs in the ensemble but with no distinguishing look. It’s often difficult to pin down who actors are supposed to represent in the parade of songs. This is not an actor issue, but a direction issue. Also no help for the audience, there are no character identities for the actors in the program and no song lists with attributions (and no attribution for the musicians regarding the instruments they play). In general, it’s difficult to get a handle on who is who, so at some point one chooses to forget all that and to simply enjoy the music.
If only that was an easy task.
Unfortunately, the vocals are the weakest element of the show, and the attempt to “sound country” is disingenuous. In general, these actors are too young or inexperienced for the depth of this music and many of their otherwise decent voices are not cast appropriately for the range or style of the music. Most of the songs are far too low for any of the men and women. The exception is Greenberg, who has a decent Carter-esque bluegrass vocal style and accent most of the time.
Otherwise, the entire show is filled with throw-away dialogue and inconsistent country tone that smacks more of a Hee Haw parody. None of the actors connect with the music or the country element in a sincere fashion. Mature somber songs normally associated with the dangerous edge that defines Cash come off as phony, happy themes delivered via Broadway harmonies, more appropriate for Rent or Jesus Christ Superstar.
Johnny Cash’s music carries gravitas and there was none of that in this production.
The beautiful sets, wonderful band and few moments of humor are not enough to save this production, which needs to be all about the songs. This reviewer cannot recommend this show. If you’re hankering to hear the man in black, perhaps pull out your old LPs, cassettes or even eight tracks.
Metropolis Performing Arts Center presents, “Ring of Fire: the Music of Johnny Cash,” through September 3 at 111 W Campbell Street, Arlington Heights. Tickets ($38) are available online here.