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'Ring of Fire' burns bright Buffalo-born musical's Broadway opening has receptive audience

A near-ecstatic contingent of theater-savvy Buffalonians and special guests were part of the wildly enthusiastic audience Sunday night as "Ring of Fire" -- the Johnny Cash musical that had its triumphant premiere on the Studio Arena Theatre stage earlier this season -- opened on Broadway in the historic Ethel Barrymore Theatre on West 47th Street.

The performance, more animated in the acting than the Buffalo original and with a number of small but dramatic revisions, inspired continual rhythmic clapping throughout the night. At the end, the show received an immediate and loud standing ovation.

After the actors took their bows and left, the clapping went on for a couple of minutes to an empty stage, until the cast was finally coaxed back by the continuing applause. The cast then dragged up a reluctant Richard Maltby Jr., "Ring of Fire" director and co-creator with William Meade, for a bow.

"It's so energetic and moving and has such an uplifting spirit," said Audre Bunis, Studio Arena board member. "You just have to have a smile on your face."

Bunis was host to a preshow party in the nearby W Hotel, in the Blue Fin Room done up in a '50s-ish fish/sea motif. Nearly everyone wore black in honor of Johnny Cash, The Man in Black, some adding bolo ties, big black hats and cowboy boots to complete the picture.

Maltby was there, taking a moment to praise Studio Arena, calling it and Buffalo "the perfect place to create something."

Roseanne Cash came in with record-producer husband John Leventhal and a group of friends, among them G.E. Smith, looking no different than he did when he led the band for "Saturday Night Live." Maltby and Cash had never met and were introduced by Studio Arena Executive Director Ken Neufeld.

Joan Andrews, a founder of Studio Arena, said she was so excited that she felt like it was her own show. Jim Freydberg, one of the "Ring of Fire" producers, said that without big stars the show had to be brought along gradually over its five-week preview run. "In the last two weeks we've seen increased audience reaction," he said.

Judging from the reaction of the opening night audience, the nurturing process is complete.

Everybody seemed abuzz at intermission -- and beyond. A glitch in the high-tech photo-animated sets -- one of the things that powerfully contributes to the sense of story that this plotless musical conveys -- held up the second act for 10 minutes or so.

During the hiatus, Gail Johnstone, executive director of the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo, described the show as being "more of a tapestry now, the songs more closely interwoven."

An enthusiastic couple from Atlanta, Andrew and Evia Golde, noted how, now that they had seen the movie "Walk the Line," they could really sit back and take in the music. "The movie gave me the history," Evia said. "Now I can just enjoy the music."

As in the Buffalo production, the Johnny Cash character was shared by Tony Award winner Jarrod Emick, Jeb Brown and Jason Edwards.

Grammy Award winner Lari White, Broadway veteran Cass Morgan and Beth Malone took on the female role (by implication June Carter Cash).

Maltby, whose genius for extracting a sense of narrative from the songs was so apparent in the Buffalo production, was displayed here with even greater ingenuity through calculated staging and dramatic interweaving of the songs.

The superb musicians, led by the multitalented David M. Lutken who appears as an actor, were absolute top form, and fully responsible for inciting the non-stop rhythmic clapping.

"We send out a very happy audience," said Maltby.

If "Ring of Fire" does go on to be a hit, will it affect the theater back in Buffalo that launched it?

"Studio Arena has already seen the impact," Neufeld noted. "Other producers are interested in talking to us about originating projects here and an increasing number of playwrights have contacted us."

e-mail: rhuntington@buffnews.com

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