Before "Ring of Fire" had its Broadway opening in the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Sunday night, the show's director and creator, Richard Maltby Jr., mused on how the New York City critics might react: "If you get on this train," he said about the Johnny Cash musical, "you're going to love it. If you don't, you won't."
The musical was wildly received by the opening night audience -- an audience that included a strong Buffalo contingent for the very good reason that "Ring of Fire" had a triumphant premier here at Studio Arena Theatre earlier this season. As the curtain came down at the Ethel Barrymore, a whole host of people seemed to be getting on Maltby's train.
But as for the Broadway critics, most never left the station. Ben Brantley of the New York Times, if he were thinking trains, would have seen this one as a tiny choo-choo that sends out puffs of fake smoke and toots with a toy whistle.
"Ring of Fire," he writes, "wrestles with a real bad case of the cutes," and then goes on to make the outlandish comparison of the singers in this show (who to me are fine and varied) with the sappiest cultural fare of the ages: "The Lawrence Welk Show" and "Sing Along with Mitch," no less.
"Even ballads of murder and apocalypse here shade into the aural pastels associated with elevator music," he continues. And later adds: "Novelty songs like a 'A Boy Named Sue' are acted out in mugging, winking detail. Gospel songs are given the Broadway hard sell. And moody ballads of love and faith are delivered with the misty-eyed, audience-courting grandeur customarily applied to show standards like 'The Impossible Dream' and 'Maria.' "
Speaking generally, Maltby had this to say about the impact of the New York Times' review: "It is the one that counts."
Among other reviews most were more positive than Brantley, but only one gave it a rave -- Michael Sommers of the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Maltby, he writes, "smartly crafts a new Broadway attraction."
"Spare yet handsome design, airy dances and genuine atmosphere of celebration help to make 'Ring of Fire' shine brightly."
Clive Barnes of the New York Post, though seeing some good things, couldn't quite convince himself to climb aboard. It was "basically a Cash-and-carry anthology," he wrote, though he also recognized Maltby's ability to transform music and lyrics into theater, the songs "almost all imaginatively presented."
Let's hear a big toot for that.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia Inquirer critic Howard Shapiro worked on the mistaken premise that the show "purports to represent the man." But he grants that it's fun anyway. He writes that the cast does Cash and June Carter "great honor" with its performances, and that Neil Patel's ingenious set "comes as close to stealing the show as any set I've seen." But he also says that "by nailing all the music together, 'Ring of Fire' makes these songs begin to sound the same."
Back at the station was the New York Sun's Eric Grode with a pocketful of mean metaphors. " 'Ring of Fire,' the theme-park-ready Johnny Cash jukebox musical that has yelped its way to Broadway, is the theatrical equivalent of Astroturf: uniform, suspiciously shiny and guaranteed not to stain or leave any mark on those who make the mistake of venturing onto it." Maltby has "molded [the songs] into a peppy, pointless Cashapalooza."
Like Shapiro, Grode wants the whole man visible -- "divorce, alcoholism, drug addition" -- on stage. After he runs out of metaphors, Grode's review turns more thoughtful. He points out how Maltby starts the show with a "suitably anguished take" on Trent Reznor's "Hurt" and then shifts "adamantly to the sunny side of the street" never to return to the shadows. He concludes that the musical "addresses Cash's legacy at only the most glib, superficial level."
Grode's sticking to his train station bench for the whole ride. He'll have company.