Anything with Johnny Cash’s name attached to it is virtually guaranteed to draw a crowd.
Case in point: Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s concert version of “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash,” which the Roswell playhouse has chosen to mount outdoors in its third summer-concert series at Chattahoochee Nature Center.
The show apparently sold out before it could open last week.
For sure, if you’re in the mood for a free-and-easy jukebox encapsulation of the Cash legend, you’ll enjoy this rather low-key account, directed by Robert J. Farley, the company’s artistic director, at the center’s beautiful Ben Brady Lakeside Pavilion.
You may even want to pack a cooler or picnic and relax at a cabaret-style table in front of the stage. (The second-tier seats, at half the price, are on the lawn, which means they come at the risk of inclement weather.)
“Ring of Fire,” which had a short-lived Broadway run in 2006 and was later revised as the five-person concert version performed here, never purported to be a straight-out musical biography of Cash (1932-2003), that all-American troubadour who saw a fair share of peaks and valleys in his time. Rather, it strives to put every ensemble member (and the various characters her or she plays) on equal footing.
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” each performer says at the top of show, suggesting that the iconic singer-songwriter/prisoner/lover/poet/philosopher/follower of Christ is more a state of mind than a man.
While I’m happy to go along with the premise, and applaud Laura Lindahl, Christopher Kent, Scott DePoy and Mark Schroeder for their efforts, I’d be a fool not to single out the excellent Chris Damiano. In a theatrical experience that is more lukewarm than burning hot, Damiano is the most commanding and inspired of the Cash personae.
Put me down as a Johnny Cash fan who enjoyed and appreciated this outdoor hootenanny but didn’t fall in love with it.
Sure, I tapped my toes and swayed my shoulders to some of the signature songs (“I’ve Been Everywhere,” “Jackson,” “Walk the Line”). I chuckled at the outrageousness of “Cocaine Blues” and, at the other end of the spectrum, felt a prick of the sadness and despair described in “Hurt,” Nine Inch Nails’ dark, self-lacerating look at addiction. Cash covered the Trent Reznor composition in 2002, will forever own it, and Damiano does it justice here.
I even got educated a bit on how to interpret “Ring of Fire” and, to some extent, “Jackson.” I thought the former was about hell and damnation, but I’ll be John Brown if the version here (featuring a dancing, prancing, flirtatious Lindahl) didn’t make me see the light: The song’s about sex. On the other hand, I always perceived “Jackson” to be about a marriage that’s “hotter than a pepper sprout,” but it’s really about what happens when the fire goes out.
Still, I groaned at the lousy jokes (the book, such as it is, is by Richard Maltby Jr.) and was kind of relieved when daylight turned to dark. (Nothing like the harsh sun to make you see a thing plainly, warts and all. The magic of theater is that it makes us forget.)
I’d like to think there’ll always be an America, and that America will always revere Johnny Cash. But I don’t know that this particular production does Cash many favors. It feels more like a walk in the park than a window into the crucible of pain and triumph that is his legacy.
The Man in Black lite? That may sound like an oxymoron. Yet here we are.
“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash”
8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. (Also 8 p.m. July 30.) Through July 30. $15-$30. Georgia Ensemble Theatre at Chattahoochee Nature Center’s Ben Brady Lakeside Pavilion, 9135 Willeo Road, Roswell. 770-641-1260. get.org
Bottom line: Where’s Johnny?