Drury Lane’s production of “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” is a lovingly performed tribute to a music legend. Performances are expertly handled by a six-person cast of actor-musicians, whose enthusiasm keeps the show moving forward, even when the thin book threatens to dull its shine.
Narratively, the show is not as strong as it could be, especially given the rich life of the man who inspired it. “Ring of Fire” clocks in at just under two hours with intermission, but I think that an audience would gladly sit through something longer if they were allowed to rest in a moment with these characters.
Kudos to the cast for an evening of fine musicality. This talented group of performers can do it all as it takes the audience on a musical journey through Cash’s career. The show incorporates twenty-nine songs to tell the evening’s tale, a repertoire that showcases the driving, fast-and-furious sound of guitars that Cash became known for, as well as quieter moments of melodic, a cappella sweetness.
As Johnny, Ron E. Rains brings a sense of gravitas to the production, an older Johnny Cash who has settled into his “Man in Black” persona. He narrates the show while slipping in and out of scenes that highlight his younger years, lending an almost prophetic presence to the evening. Michael Potter plays the younger Johnny, or J.R., and his take on the man is a well-honed one. When Rains and Potter switch verses on a tune, there’s an interesting melding of future and present-day Johnny. Both approximate Cash’s bass-baritone voice without it feeling like a caricature.
The rest of the cast is fantastic. Roy James Brown, Elleon Dobias, Erik Hellman and Aja Wiltshire each have standout moments throughout the night while playing multiple instruments. Brown and Hellman are Cash’s talented backing band The Tennessee Two; when not playing as an additional member of the backing band, Dobias has a brief tender moment as Cash’s first wife, Vivian, and Wiltshire soars as the lark-voiced June Carter. Everyone is so in tune with one another, a few opening night snapped guitar strings and muddled audio issues never slowed the action.
Drury Lane’s projection work always impresses, and Anthony Churchill’s inclusion of Arkansas scenery, rumbling trains, running horses and concert posters helps add context to a sparse set. Designed on a turntable, the set spins from the front porch of an abandoned white clapboard train station to the inside of a performance space. Lee Fiskness’ lighting design transports the audience from the luminous Grand Ole Opry to a dark hotel room.
Cash fans will have a great time at the warmly nostalgic “Ring of Fire.” More like a concert than a traditional musical, the rousing evening keeps attendees clapping out the door.
“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630)530-0111, drurylandtheatre.com, $85.75-$96.25. Through October 22.