The title of the show onstage now at Portland Stage Company, “Ring of Fire: The Johnny Cash Musical Show,” says it all: This is a jukebox show that delivers the hits, with a fine thread of hagiography and social history holding those songs together.
And that music is timeless and terrific.
Portland Stage Company and Maine State Music Theatre co-produce an enthusiastically performed, technically excellent production of the musical songbook, co-directed by the husband-and-wife team Katie Barton and Ben Hope, who also perform in the crack five-person ensemble, featuring Scott Moreau – originally from Litchfield, Maine – as Cash.
It runs onstage through Aug. 29 and streams on-demand through Sept. 12.
The set (conceived by Hope and adapted by Anita Stewart) is a series of high, wooden train station arches against the brick back wall, with a welter of crates and suitcases used as modular set-pieces. Hung here and there are ropes, baskets, and with a welter of instruments awaiting their turns to sing – an accordion, mandolin, drum set, washboard, and various guitars.
And perhaps the most impressive thing about this show is not just that all those instruments get used, but that they all get used exclusively by the five all-Equity performers: along with Moreau, Barton, and Hope, Morgan Morse and Elizabeth Nestlerode are both singer-actors and band, and they trade off instruments as if each is a wonderful toy they’re excited to share.
After a surprisingly artful overture, which samples from Cash’s hits with almost liturgical harmonies and vibe, we launch into “Country Boy” and then “Daddy Sang Bass,” and hence the early years: the government relief house in Arkansas, the hard work, the Sears Roebuck radio, the family circle of song.
Barton plays the upright as Mom Cash during these scenes, with Hope as Dad Cash on mandolin, Nestlerode as perky sister on washboard and other percussive ephemera, and Morse on banjo as Cash’s ill-fated brother, who died young in a saw accident at the mill.
Across the cast, voices are strong and vibrant, and the music is vibrant, joyous, and seamlessly performed as the ensemble cycles through instruments and characters. We see some of the ensemble’s range during Cash’s early days at the Grand Ole Opry, as the cast gives us a taste of old-style variety showmanship, with hammed-up jokes and harmonious flour ads sung around the WSM radio mic. Cash and his band perform an infectious rendition of “Big River.”
Perhaps the most anticipated character to arrive into the timeline, at the Grand Ole Opry, is June Carter, and Nestlerode makes her insouciant, vivacious, and bigger than life. As she peppers her first number, “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart,” with eye rolls, raised brows, and smirks, she lets us see not just June’s charm, talent, and willfulness, but also how smart she must be to succeed in a man’s industry, and how much she’s already had to endure.
And as the Man in Black himself, Moreau might not have the epic, craggy gravitas of Cash’s face and bearing, but he does fine justice to the depth and timbre of the famous voice, to the cadences of his colloquial speech, and a sense of the fiery soul in there making it all happen.
The Johnny Cash songbook could be seen as a kind of Rorschach: What might your favorite Cash song reveal about your inner mind and soul? The upbeat lament of “Big River”? The exquisite existential hangdoggery of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (actually written by Kris Kristofferson, but made a hit by Cash)? The brimstone ardor of “Ring of Fire” itself? They’re all there in the musical jukebox, ready for your self-searching, foot-tapping, and praise.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Put another dime in the jukebox
If jukebox musicals are your thing, and if south Floridian shenanigans are also your thing, you might enjoy the Ogunquit Playhouse’s “Escape to Margaritaville,” a songbook paean to Jimmy Buffet, which runs through Aug. 28. And up next at the Playhouse is a musical version of “Mystic Pizza,” populated by ’80s and ’90’s hits by the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Robert Palmer; it opens Sept. 1. FMI: https://www.ogunquitplayhouse.org/.
Also opening on Sept. 1 is the first of Maine State Music Theatre’s own season lineup: “Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.” Because the season was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, shows will be performed at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center rather than in Brunswick; theatergoers will be required to submit proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 tests, and to wear masks. FMI: https://msmt.org/.