Review: 'Ring of Fire' at La Mirada Theatre
Johnny Cash — farm boy, leftist superstar, biblical scholar, novelist and drug addict — had a life as outsized as an American folk tale. How to capture that giant spirit without the man himself is a conundrum never quite solved by Richard Maltby Jr.’s easygoing songbook tribute, “Ring of Fire,” now at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.
The only stage compilation of his work approved by Cash, the show has an old-fashioned radio show feel -- more kick back than lean forward. Directed by Jason Edwards (who also performs), “Ring of Fire” is relaxed — it’s almost “Lawrence Welk” -- but does offer deft renditions of Cash classics like “Cry, Cry, Cry,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hey Porter” and, of course, “I Walk the Line.”
John Iacovelli’s set features a wood-shingled country cabin that serves as a bandstand for the six musicians, and a highway billboard showing photos from Cash’s life. “Fire” is a biographical, but there’s no real story, just narrated vignettes of Cash’s childhood, his fateful first meeting with June Carter, a smattering of quotes and facts, and his explanation of his monochromatic wardrobe.
Edwards and singers Troy Burgess, Michelle Duffy, and Christa Jackson portray Cash and his much-loved second wife in the big numbers like “Jackson,” but wisely never attempt to imitate the country icon’s vocal style or mannerisms. Jackson and Edwards are both Southerners, and they bring a regional feel that imbues their performances with particular warmth.
The production’s simplest moments are its strongest. After the story of how Cash’s brother died in a terrible accident, we hear a gorgeous a cappella version of “In the Sweet By and By,” followed by a joyful “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Cash’s early songs, with their evocation of farm rhythms, come as a real delight. “When I’ve Got it On My Mind” is a surprisingly direct celebration of marital intimacy, while “Five Feet High and Rising” thrillingly conjures the tension of a flood.
The instrumentalists shine in solo moments -- John W. Marshall slaps a mean bass, Brent Moyer revs his guitar -- and the ensemble plays all manner of found objects: chains, buckets, pipes, even chairs. (The fine musical direction is by keyboardist Jeff Lisenby.)
“Ring of Fire” is certainly polished, but it never quite feels theatrical, even in the way that other songbooks like “Smokey Joe’s Café” manage to achieve. The second act, which has an awkward prison sequence and a number of songs about shooting floozies (“Delia’s Gone,” “Cocaine Blues”), wears out its welcome.
A show this user-friendly can’t approach the raw power of Cash’s legendary 1968 recordings in Folsom Prison or his later, heartbreaking work with Trent Reznor.
In the end, “Ring of Fire” succeeds best in evoking Cash’s rural beginnings picking cotton and hauling hay. If “Fire” doesn’t show us the scale of the Man in Black, it shines a light on the simple beginnings that gave him an indelible authenticity.
-- Charlotte Stoudt
“Ring of Fire,” La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thurdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 21. $40-$48. (562) 944-9801. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
Caption: Jason Edwards (foreground) stars with Michelle Duffy, Troy Burgess and Christa Jackson in "Ring of Fire" at La Mirada Theatre. Credit: Michael Lamont