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Review: Broadway Salute to Cash Is Bland

March 13, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) _ The twang is appealing but the theatrics are bland in ``Ring of Fire,″ which has brought the gospel according to Johnny Cash to Broadway.

We’re talking about the music associated with this country legend, shoehorned into an odd little quasi-revue that doesn’t quite know how to tell the singer’s remarkable tale. What’s on stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is not a biography like the movie ``Walk the Line,″ but rather a vague, impressionistic salute to the Man in Black told through more than three dozen of the songs he performed during his long career.

The result is an almost exhausting parade of numbers, delivered by a talented if generic cast and a superb collection of onstage musicians who make the most of every melody. Just looking at the hardworking fiddler, Laurie Canaan, and listening to her play will set your toes tapping.

Yet despite the exuberance of individual songs and performers, there is little momentum to this mild show, created and directed by Richard Maltby Jr. and based on ideas by William Meade. The evening meanders, which is deadly for a journey musical _ with the requisite train whistle threading through much of the show’s musical soundtrack to remind us we should be moving on.

The songs Cash sang are deceptively simple. Many speak directly to the heart and could be, particularly as he got older, surprisingly dark and reflective. Consider ``Hurt,″ a number at the beginning of the show that looks back on what has happened in his life. ``I hurt myself today to see if I still feel,″ sings an older man (Jason Edwards) trying to get back to what mattered most.

Feelings about family, love and the farm permeate ``Ring of Fire,″ which sketchily follows Cash’s career from home to small-town roadhouses to eventually the Grand Ole Opry. The bulk of the material is sung by three couples, an older pair (Edwards and Cass Morgan) and two younger ones: Jarrod Emick and Beth Malone; Jeb Brown and country star Lari White.

Several of the songs are wanly staged as if they were little playlets: a barroom brawl between father and son for ``A Boy Named Sue″ and a chain-gang sequence that incorporates several numbers including ``Delia’a Gone,″ ``Austin Prison″ and, of course, ``Folsom Prison Blues.″

White, in particular, is strong, delivering the plaintive cry of a devoted, love-addled woman in the touching ``All Over Again.″ And there is an easy, homespun charm to Morgan’s more maternal numbers. Emick and Brown are the young bucks _ Cash in his prime, as it were _ who strut and sing with ease. But then Lisa Shriver’s choreography is of the elemental, foot-stomping variety.

Quick-changing projections, designed by Neil Patel, depict a variety of rural all-American settings including lonely farmhouses, the open road and the wind-swept sky.

Maltby had great success in the late 1970s with ``Ain’t Misbehavin’,″ his joyous celebration of singer and songwriter Fats Waller. Cast with a quintet of unique performers (including Nell Carter), it brought Waller to life as well. In ``Ring of Fire,″ Cash, who died in 2003, remains frustratingly unrealized.

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