The Johnny Cash tribute show “Ring of Fire” circles back to its roots on the 710 Theatre stage, sounding even better and fresher than when it debuted more than a decade ago.
It even sounds better and fresher than when the same group of players presented the show a year ago for a well-received run at MusicalFare.
The wonderfully talented ensemble enjoys the kind of comfort level that only comes from performing together (happily) night after night after night, the kind of connection we might have seen in the Carter family back in the day.
This “Ring of Fire” is not the one that Buffalo sent to Broadway from Studio Arena in 2006, a show that sank under the weight of trying to showcase too much of Cash’s 50-year career. The new version, which we saw last year, is trimmed down and less talky, celebrating the man’s music and leaving most of his incredible and troubled life for the biographers.
Playbills rightly avoid calling “Ring of Fire” a musical, which would suggest a song-filled play. Let’s call this a “performance concert,” with the cast acknowledging the audience, interacting a little bit and then moving from song to song – more than 30 of them --- to tell Cash’s story entirely through his music.
The ensemble is five men and three women: the incomparable Katie Clark, who moonlights as a grade-school music teacher; Steve Copps, fresh from “Frankenstein” at RLTP; Kevin Craig, particularly good at getting Cash’s jokes; Philip Farugia, who comes closest to Cash’s own brooding stage presence; Bob Mazierski, bringing the beat on drums, boxes aand anything else you can thump or shake; Theresa Quinn, who stands in for the Carter women; guitarist Zak Ward, the heart of the show’s blues; and Maggie Zindle playing the fiddle like she was born a country girl.
Fans of Cash, of music and of 710 Main filled the theater opening night and applauded appreciatively through the opening numbers. This is theater, after all, not a sing-along, but when the band got to “Ring of Fire” and “Jackson” to close out Act I, you could tell this is what they came for. Just try NOT to at least mouth the words when you hear “I fell into a burnin’ ring of fire / I went down, down, down / And the flames went higher / and it burns, burns, burns / The ring of fire, the ring of fire.”
Overall, this remains less a Cash show than a fans’ show. Each musician performs with far more energy than the stoic Man in Black ever showed on stage. He was there to sing and play. This group means to entertain.
And part of that is a good appreciation not just of the troubles that inspired Cash’s music, but also of his sense of humor. “A Boy Named Sue” may have been his biggest hit, but it was far from his silliest. There’s the darkly comic “Delia’s Gone,” the slightly less murderous “Egg Suckin’ Dog” and the masterpiece of tortured household metaphors, “Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart.”
Johnny Cash may be gone, and Studio Arena may be gone, and the original “Ring of Fire” may have flopped on Broadway, but as anyone with a beating heart knows, the show can and must go on.
“Ring of Fire” and the 710 Theatre make the most of their second chances, and provide a winning answer to the question of whether the circle will be unbroken, bye and bye. Right now, it is holding together pretty durn well.
"Ring of Fire"
3 1/2 stars
Eight talented musicians pay tribute to the life and music of Johnny Cash in a fast-moving performance concert of more than 30 of the legend's songs. Presented by MusicalFare at Shea's 701 Theatre, 710 Main St., through March 5. Tickets are at sheas.org or by calling 716-829-1153.
Story topics: theater review