By Arnold Wayne Jones – Stage Critic

‘Ring of Fire’ can’t Cash in where it counts

Like most other legendary singers, the thing that made Johnny Cash brilliant wasn’t, strictly speaking, his songs; it was his voice, his way with a lyric. Listening to Frank Sinatra croaking out a few broken notes at the end of his career on his "Duets" albums was more compelling than most hit pop albums because his style was inimitable. The same was true of the Man in Black. He transcended the constricting label "country singer" and was a true music artist.

So "Ring of Fire," the national touring production of the flop Broadway jukebox musical of two seasons past, was virtually doomed from the start. For two hours, eight young men and women (and some musicians) sing Cash’s hits, from "Jackson" to "Folsom Prison Blues" to "A Boy Named Sue." But all of them combined can’t cover up the giant elephant in the room: Try as they might, none of them are Johnny.

The main deficiency of the plotless "Ring of Fire" — actors merely fill in details from Cash’s life through asides in between numbers — is that, by including nearly 40 songs from Cash’s half-century career in roughly chronological order, there’s as much chaff padding the score as there is wheat to save it. That means Act 1 is especially front-loaded with lame early recordings — cornpone duds that probably seemed like hayseed dregs in the ’40s. But whereas Cash could turn a cheesefest like "Country Boy" into a serviceable B-side (a low rung on his ladder to greatness), the singer here, Jeremy Wood, can barely hold the melody. And it opens the show!

We’re a bad 30 minutes in before the first rollicking number, "Daddy Sang Bass," has the effect of a show-stopper, and even it is but a glimmer of brightness (some of the women miss the beat and the notes). The "Grand Ol’ Opry" segment has some sense for ironic silliness, but most of the time, it just seems patronizing: "The Lawrence Welk Show" by way of "Hee-Haw." This is the kind of show where the audience feels bullied into clapping along with songs.

This non-Equity show has a few bright spots. While Wood botches his first song (and a few more, intermixed with some good ones), he makes for one sexy cowboy and brings a hunky charm to what is at times a charmless show. (Kudos to costume designer Anne Kennedy for pouring him and fiddler Jens Kramer into the kind of tight-fitting jeans usually only found on the dance floor of the Round-Up Saloon.) And Steve Benoit’s voice, especially on "Cocaine Blues" and "Cry, Cry, Cry," comes closest to approximating the spirit of Johnny.

Cash’s last single, an aching cover of Nine Inch Nails’ "Hurt," was a testament to his genius; it gets referenced here but not performed, leaving the fitting capstone of his career a footnote. Which is what "Ring of Fire" will soon be to musical theater.

Runs at Fair Park Music Hall through May 25.

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