Three chords and the truth.
That’s the basic description of country music.
And that’s what Johnny Cash wrote and performed: songs that are pure and simple and from the heart.
“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” (at Florida Repertory Theatre through April 23) is a tribute to the Man in Black.
This jukebox revue features a five-person ensemble — three men and two women — who take turns portraying Johnny Cash or members of his family.
Heck, there are times when the audience spontaneously sings along, and each of us is Johnny Cash too.
Cash was an Everyman who sang about love and loss and grief, hard times and heaven. He sang of traveling and prison and of killing a man in Reno, “just to watch him die.”
He was a religious man who sang spiritual songs and hymns but didn’t shy away from the gritty side of life.
He was country, he was rock, he was gospel. His songs also included shades of bluegrass and rockabilly.
Whether you’re a long-time fan of Johnny Cash or just have a glancing knowledge of his music, “Ring of Fire” is an entertaining and engrossing show.
The setting (by scenic designer Bert Scott) is a rustic, empty concert stage with wooden walls decorated with straight-back chairs and guitars. The multi-layered stage house various instruments, trunks, mic stands and amplifiers.
Larry Tobias opens the show by walking out and sitting at the upright piano, which is centerstage and on a turntable. In his black outfit and silver hair, he bears a resemblance to the iconic singer in his later years. Tobias often delivers his songs in that half-talking, half-singing style Cash sometimes demonstrated.
But it’s when performer/music director Matt Cusack opens his mouth and sings that you sit up and take notice, because he plumbs those down-in-the-depths, roll-around-in-the-deep, low register we associate with Cash.
But every performer in this show is a new revelation. They’re all multi-instrumentalists, moving with ease from guitar to drums to piano. Skilled accompaniment also includes banjo, mandolin and even an autoharp.
Early songs in the first act include “Country Boy,” with a propulsive beat and Maggie Hollinbeck, an original member of the band Ramblin’ Rose, delivering a sassy and sultry “While I’ve Got It On My Mind.”
The musical was created by Richard Maltby Jr. and conceived by William Meade, adapted from the Broadway production by Jason Edwards and Mr. Maltby.
Jason Parrish directed this production, and while the music and tone of the show differ from last season’s wildly successful “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” it’s just as much fun.
“Ring of Fire” ebbs and flows more, though, as it includes two slower Kris Kristofferson songs: “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Why Me.”
Armando Gutierrez, who is often on drums, sings “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog,” a novelty song, milking the laughs.
Allison Ann Kelly, who tours nationally as June Carter, portrays her to a T in this show.
She has a spark and a certain ineffable quality that makes the audience love her; you can see why Cash was so taken with her.
She’s formidable on her own, but when Mr. Cusak joins her, the musical sparks fly off the stage.
(Though I did miss the inclusion of “Jackson” at the end of Act I. Ms. Kelly and Mr. Cusack perform it in Act II.)
Costume designer Kim Griffin provides some great outfits, despite the limitations placed upon her. June Carter Cash has an outstanding scarlet gown that sparkles in the spotlight.
All the favorites are here: “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “Going to Memphis,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and of course, the song the show is named after, “Ring of Fire.”
The show speeds along, like a runaway train Cash might sing about. The five highly talented performers trade instruments and sing together in different configurations, with each one having a turn in the spotlight. And the times they sing a capella, harmonizing, are just heavenly. Unfortunately, the playbill doesn’t provide any information on who performs or sings lead on which songs, only a list of song credits for copyright purposes.
Be forewarned: the lighting (by Lighting Director Tyler M. Perry) is extremely dark and moody at times. Perhaps it’s more effective if you’re sitting very close, but at times I wished for just a little more light. e musical revue tells the story of
Th Cash’s life, while also re-enacting out scenes from it. Be forewarned: in Act I, the ensemble performs “Five Feet High and Rising,” as a young Cash, his siblings and parents. I admit, to hear this song about flooding just six months after Hurricane Ian — in a theater that actually suffered flood damage from multiple feet of rising water — was difficult. The emotional tone of the audience seemed to change, and I noticed some theater-goers wiping tears from their eyes afterwards.
The show tells the basics of Cash’s life, and doesn’t overlook his struggles with alcoholism and pills. It doesn’t deal with the cover songs he recorded near the end of his life, his “American Recordings” with producer Rick Rubin.
“Ring of Fire” at Florida Rep sets the stage aflame with talent and music. A whirlwind ride of a show, it’s a fitting tribute to Johnny Cash. ¦
In the KNOW
‘Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash’
When: through April 23
Where: Historic Arcade Theatre, Bay Street between Jackson and Hendry, downtown Fort Myers
Cost: $69 and $63
Info: 239-332-4488 or www.floridarep.org