Ring of Fire Walks the Line and Stumbles With Johnny Cash's Music

Also, Sweetest Swing Strikes Out

Not quite a concert, not quite a bio, not quite much of anything, Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash takes two hours of tunes the rugged "outlaw" country music legend made famous and sends them to musical rehab. Out they come on the other side of the dull-a-tron machine—happy, peppy and bursting with bleached-white smiles. Gone are all vestiges of the craggy, troubled troubadour in black. In his place are perky, young rockabilly robots dressed in bedazzled denims and sunny frills.

Nobody and everybody plays Cash for the non-Equity road tour currently at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Between songs—more than 30, but not as many as the program promises—the men and women in the cast take turns spouting lines from Richard Maltby Jr.'s barebones book for the show. Among the nuggets of cornponery is this gem: "Mama always taught me that good thangs come from adversity if ya put yer faith in the Lord." Ga-hick, ga-hick and pass the mashed potaters. Welcome to the buffet of musical tribute clichés.

The story starts in the cotton fields of Tennessee, but in this version it ends with something akin to an American Idol Johnny Cash night. The narrative lets Cash's life story fritter away in the second hour. Suddenly he's dead, but they keep on singing and stompin' their boots, launching into a whoopin'-and-hollerin' extended medley that includes "Cry, Cry, Cry" and "I Walk the Line." For schmaltz—the Nashville-speak for that would be good ol' fashioned chicken grease—they pump their fists in the air for the resoundingly jingoistic "Ragged Old Flag." And for the finale, which goes nigh on till dawn, they line up at the edge of the stage for 147 verses of "I've Been Everywhere" (the song with all the city names that became a motel chain commercial).

Hear that rolling sound? It's Johnny Cash, reacting to the perky musical tribute to his life in Ring of Fire.
Hear that rolling sound? It's Johnny Cash, reacting to the perky musical tribute to his life in Ring of Fire.

Details

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash continues through May 25 at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Call 214-631-ARTS.

The Sweetest Swing in Baseball continues through May 31 at Stage West, Fort Worth. Call 817-784-9378.

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Ring of Fire is so far removed from its authentic source, it ain't even a kissin' cousin to Cash's musical style. This show's pep squad of performers, particularly the four women—Erica Cantrell, Marissa Caro, Julie Meirick, Erin Parker—sing loudly but without feeling, like non-English speakers who've learned the songs phonetically. They exhibit the forced enthusiasm and uniform blandness of theme park entertainers.

All this dishonors the man. When Cash sang, you knew whose voice it was. That croaky hoarseness—as if he'd gargled with hot asphalt and Jack Daniel's—deepened with age, adding a layer of grit to those laments about snortin' coke, shootin' women and doing time. Cash was scary-intense. The prospect of danger loomed in every lyric. He rarely even smiled.

That's why it's just so, so weird to have a young, pretty blond guy grinning his way through "Folsom Prison Blues." That guy is Jeremy Wood, the Ring of Fire cast member who gets most of the big solos despite his tendency to lose tempo, mess up words and go wildly off-key. But gosh darn, he looks purdy in tight jeans and a white muscle shirt as he wriggles around in choreographer Karma Camp's halfhearted hoedowns. He's clearly in the wrong kind of show. As he takes his sweet time on Cash's novelty number "A Boy Named Sue," it's hard not to look at him and think, "No, he seems more of a Sandra."

Singer Steve Benoit, who's done up in a strange Cash-as-Kenickie 1950s pompadour, is the only one in the cast to get anywhere close to the dark, throat-thrashing sound that matches the music. He sings just three solos, but they're the highlights of an otherwise low-bar production.

Dallas Summer Musicals has 17 shows in its lineup this year, running one, two or three weeks apiece. Ring of Fire and its immediate predecessor at Fair Park, Rain: The Beatles Experience, which at least sounded something like the real thing, are proof that DSM producer Michael Jenkins has gone for quantity over quality in choosing the season. Jersey Boys, coming in July, and this fall's arrival of Oprah Winfrey Presents The Color Purple (yep, O's name is part of the title—take that, Alice Walker!) have the heft of Tony awards and decent Broadway runs behind them. The rest are flab, filler and fluff.

After Cash is the bazillionth road company tour of that cash cow called Cats.

Rebecca Gilman has written a great many plays in her still-young career. Not one of them is great. Running through the end of May at Fort Worth's Stage West is one of her most recent, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball.

As Gilman did with her other works, which include Boy Gets Girl (about a psycho stalker) and Spinning Into Butter (about racism), she locks into a ripped-from-the-headlines topic for her plotline and then sticks with it for 90 minutes. Her plays almost always unfold in two 45-minute acts divided into five- and 10-minute scenes, just like back-to-back episodes of Law & Order. She can't write a line worth remembering, but she's remarkably efficient.

The "swing" in the title of this one belongs to disgraced Yankees slugger Darryl Strawberry, who went through much-publicized bouts of alcohol and drug abuse, recovery, relapse, imprisonment and, finally, cancer. Like the Johnny Cash of Ring of Fire, Strawberry isn't actually in the Gilman play. Rather his identity is adopted by its main character, a female mental patient. She's suicidal painter Dana Fielding (played by Lisha Brock), who pretends to have multiple-personality disorder to wring a few more weeks of treatment out of her insurance provider.

The ruse has unexpected consequences. In occupational therapy sessions, Dana-as-Darryl starts painting crude portraits of baseball-playing chickens (a twist on dogs playing poker perhaps). She signs Strawberry's name on the pictures, and her art dealer (Laurel Whitsett) slaps fat prices on them as the work of an "outsider artist." Back on top in the art market, Dana doesn't drop her new guise; without the gimmick, she's just another bipolar hack. But is she still faking it, or has Dana Fielding gone Field of Dreams and become her imagined alter ego? Will she be Strawberry/Fielding forever?

There are interesting possibilities that pop up all the way through The Sweetest Swing. Unfortunately, Gilman fouls out with every opportunity. She works in some slams at mental health professionals—Dana's shrink (Nancy Sherrard) is a failed actress, as if that means anything—and she reaches back, back, back to the plot of Boy Gets Girl to borrow a character who's locked up for being a psychotic stalker (played by the always interesting David Fluitt). Gilman's awkward commentary on the "What is art?" question goes nowhere, however. And she runs toward the issue of (badly) managed health care and then lets it drop.

Stage West's production also swings and misses at the comic potential in the play. Dana Schultes, usually onstage in major roles at this theater, is still a newbie director. This is only her second directing gig for the company, and with this one she's stuck with a lead actress, Brock, who amateurishly telegraphs every move, none of them funny.

The transformation of a skinny white chick into the towering persona of Darryl Strawberry should be the turning point of the play. Dana's fellow crazies, the psychotic stalker and a suicidal gay man (Joshua Doss), offer her tips on baseball slang to use and coach her on player stats. They even joke about making her their own Eliza Doolittle. But Brock does nothing physically or vocally to indicate when she's Dana and when she's Darryl. As her psychosis deepens, we should see her slipping further from Dana and more completely into the ballplayer. But Brock doesn't even try the double play, which weakens Gilman's already shaky ninth inning.

Nutso girl plus mental hospital plus baseball player: Darryl, Interrupted.

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