Jukebox musicals are generally not ensemble pieces. Typically, there is an actor or actors whose name is on the door of the theater, and there are collaborators, spouses, and a supporting cast playing record label teams whose job is to tell the artist that success will be impossible because they don’t fit in. in any box. (Spoiler alert: They’re always wrong.)
But that’s not how “Ring of Fire” is performed at the Drury Lane Theatre. Playing and singing by Ron E. Rains, Roy James Brown, Elleon Dobias, Erik Hellman, Michael Potter and Aja Wiltshire, vocalists and highly talented multi-instrumentalists, this concert feels like a small collective concert.
If you haven’t seen previous productions prior to the pandemic, including a superb staging at both Indiana’s defunct Theater at the Center and Chicago’s Mercury Theater, “Ring of Fire” has come to life as a Broadway musical about Johnny Cash. Know that it starts. 2006. Unfortunately, it was considered too bland and hypocritical to do the brooding Man credit, and the show failed and closed in six weeks.
Later, the show’s creator, Richard Maltby Jr., re-edited the piece for licensing, and by removing much of the original narration, it shortened the experience and actually became more of a revue.
When I watched the Mercury show, I thought it proved Maltby’s decision was correct: the 2015 production featured a pair of enigmatic and emotional central performances who took complete control of the enterprise. But on Thursday night, it felt like the show suffered from the same problems that plagued the piece on Broadway.
I’ve been a long-time fan of Ron E. Rains, the gorgeous and immensely versatile Chicago actor who now plays the central role of ex-Cash, following the late departure of Lance Guest, which was announced earlier, but he needs to control more of the limelight here. It’s a topic that may need the focused help of director Scott Weinstein, whose production requires a higher level of emotional intensity and a much stronger perspective. Frankly, this isn’t an ideal vocal choice.
After all, Cash enjoyed the image of the humble enigmatic, a romantic outlaw who preferred a black coat over the cowboy boots and rhinestones of his peers. His voice was, of course, a manifestation of his uniqueness, and it was that big, deep voice of scarred, constricted, resilient masculinity that captivated his fan base.
Unfortunately, nothing in this exhibition feels like it’s actually in danger, this piece always poses a danger. If you’re a fan of the Cash repertoire (many of the songs were written by others), you’ll definitely enjoy songs like “Walk the Line” and “Why Me, Lord” and appreciate its strong vocal aspects. The entire cast is lovely. Set designer Angela Weber Miller’s return visuals also look great, especially Anthony Churchill’s projections.
But the promised fire? He needs a few more days.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Ring of Fire” (2.5 stars)
When: Until October 22
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace
Working time: 2 hours
Tickets: $54-$74 at 630-530-0111 and drurylanetheatre.com