Ring of Fire

A talented cast and band evoke the Man in Black in TexARTS' Johnny Cash musical, Ring of Fire

Hotter than a pepper sprout: Brittany Allyson and Rob Franco
Hotter than a pepper sprout: Brittany Allyson and Rob Franco

Johnny Cash: a staple in any jukebox worth its salt, but not necessarily someone whose music one imagines burning up the Great White Way. Well, it sure didn't in 2006, when Ring of Fire landed on Broadway; "the Johnny Cash musical show" flopped, closing a mere month after opening. Now, Lakeway theatre company TexARTS has resurrected the revue, no doubt hoping our area's general affinity for Cash will fill its seats. And with the down-home vibe it's created and the talented singers and musicians it's assembled, it should have no problem drawing crowds for a toe-tapping good time.

As tends to be the case with jukebox musicals, this show is not plot-heavy, but episodic. Unlike others in the genre, though, it isn't exactly biographical either. Despite both lifting their titles from Cash hits, Ring of Fire and the 2005 film Walk the Line, which centers on the Man in Black himself, share few similarities. Indeed, the extent to which this revue tells its subject's life story goes only so far as the biography contained within individual songs; numbers like "Five Feet High and Rising" or "Daddy Sang Bass" seem to relate personal anecdotes from Cash's life, but do nothing to advance the show's narrative. But while you may not learn much about Cash's life from the show, you will hear a well-sung Cash compilation that, as his revolutionary sound has done since the Fifties, evokes Southern pride, spirituality, and, at times, impenetrable sadness.

Though Cash made it seem simple to convey a multitude of emotions with his captivating wry intensity, it's actually a quite daunting task. The TexARTS team succeeds overall, though, providing competent and entertaining renditions of his country standards without missing a beat from the double bass, and often while playing instruments themselves. The cast is comprised of five talented singers whose voices meld together beautifully or shine individually as called for, whether spinning a tale about an Arkansas farm or Folsom Prison. As far as characters are concerned, this production has that ensemble-type feel where no one is playing Cash, but everyone is. Sometimes narrators, sometimes relatives or bandmates, the actors' roles remain fluid throughout. Having recently caught both Jarret Mallon and Matt Buzonas at St. Edward's University in the Mary Moody Northen Theatre's twangy production of The Robber Bridegroom, I was pleased to see them again contributing their vocal talents to a genre of music that suits them quite well. Rob Franco does an especially fine job of interpreting Cash's music without impersonating it and maintains the powerful stage presence necessary for performing some of the darker songs. The female cast members are truly outstanding, though, with Brittany Allyson portraying a vivacious June Carter Cash in "Jackson" and Julie Foster providing a wistful rendition of "I Still Miss Someone."

Cash's music, of course, calls for a talented band, and Ring of Fire ups the ante by placing these gifted instrumentalists onstage alongside the actors, helping to create a concert feel. On guitar and fiddle is Walt Roberts, who has performed with country legends like Asleep at the Wheel and June Carter herself. Rounding out the band is Bradley Shelton on double bass and Paul Koudouris on lead guitar; all three are an integral part of the production's authenticity.

For more centrally located Austinites, TexARTS' performance space in Lakeway is somewhat of a trek, but I found the drive out of the city limits refreshing and befitting a production that takes its audience back to its country roots.

Ring of Fire

TexARTS Kam & James Morris Theatre,
2300 Lohmans Spur #160, Lakeway, 512/852-9079
Through July 26
Running time: 2 hr.

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TexARTS, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Rob Franco, Brittany Allyson, Jarret Mallon, Matt Buzonas, Julie Foster, Walt Roberts

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