Johnny Cash, "The Man in Black," was noted as a somber singer of such songs as "I Walk the Line," "If I Were a Carpenter," and "Ring of Fire." The latter was chosen as the title for Richard Maltby Jr.'s jukebox musical, now on stage at Porthouse Theatre, which loosely centers on the trials and tribulations of Cash's life. While not biographical per se, the tale includes enough of the man to provide an understanding of Cash, his music, his strong belief in social causes and his personal problems.
Cash's deep, calm, bass-baritone voice set the gold standard for other male country music icons, making him one of the most influential, and successful, musicians of the 20th century: His worldwide sales topped more than 90 million records.
Though most would identify the man as a country music icon, his songs and sounds encompassed not only country music but rock and roll, alternative rock, rockabilly, blues, folk, gothic and gospel. And, though he was noted for his sincerity, he also is identified with such ditties as "A Boy Named Sue," "Egg Suckin' Dog," and "Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart."
Cash served a stint in the Air Force, married young, had four daughters and divorced. In 1955, following his time in the service, he brazenly walked into the offices of Sam Phillips, the legendary owner and producer of Sun Records. Phillips was responsible for finding and mapping the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. Cash sang a gospel song, was told that Sun wasn't recording gospel any longer and was supposedly sent away with the message, "Go home and sin, then come back with a song I can sell." Legend has it that Cash came back the next day with "Cry! Cry! Cry!" which became a country hit.
In the late 1950s, Cash became addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates. Despite several attempts at rehab, those demons shadowed him for the rest of his life.
The addictions created a frenetic creativity, which produced the likes of "Ring of Fire," a crossover hit that reached No. 1 on the country charts and landed in the Top 20 on the pop charts.
Interestingly, though he cultivated an outlaw image, he never actually served a prison sentence. He did, however, feel a strong compassion for prisoners, and not only performed in many prisons, he performed songs such as "Folsom Prison Blues," illuminating the need for prison reform.
He had a longterm relationship with June Carter of the famed Carter Family. They fell in love, married and had a son. Their duet, "Jackson," which closes the first act of Ring of Fire, reveals the inklings that became their life story and foreshadowed the many duets the couple would perform.
Cash passed away on Sept. 12, 2003, at the age of 71, supposedly from complications from diabetes.
"Ring of Fire" had a short run on Broadway in 2006. It uses songs recorded by Cash between 1955 and 2002, both those he wrote and those written by other composers.
The Porthouse production, co-produced with the CATCO Theatre, had an extended run in Columbus before being staged locally. Under the direction of Steven Anderson, with high-quality musical direction by Travis Smith, the production is creatively staged and well sung. Anderson won the Times Tribute Award last year for his directing of Porthouse's Violet.
Anderson's concept alters the Broadway production by using only five performers (four males — Brian Mueller, Travis Smith, Mathew Smolko, and David Goins — and a female, Amy Fritsche) instead of the six used in the Big Apple, where three heterosexual couples — young, middle-aged and older — sang the roles.
Anderson has all of the cast become "Johnny Cash," stressing the songs rather than who sung them. The talented ensemble plays all of the music on electric guitars, banjo, washboard, harmonicas, ukulele, bass, piano, drum, tambourine, spoons, autoharp, metal pipes and chains. No off-stage band is used. All of the performances are top notch.
The cast was so proficient that listing the songs they each sang so well is impossible. The upbeat "Get Rhythm," the weeper "Cry, Cry, Cry," the pretty "I Still Miss Someone," the humorous "I've Been Everywhere," were the less well-known tunes that deserve recognition.
Special notice should be made of Amy Fritsche, last year's Cleveland Critics Circle Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in Violet, who will be appearing in Best Intentions at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as in London, in August.
Terry Martin's set centers on a conceived barn with a wall on which various instruments are hung. Jakyung Seo's lighting effects help develop the song moods by creating the correct emotional illusions, while Nathan Rosmarin's sound design makes for clear audio and nicely inserted special effects.
The intimate Porthouse thrust stage is a perfect venue for the show.It brings the action up-close and personal and allows the cast and audience to interact. (Many in the audience, obviously Cash fans, were mouthing the words to many of the songs.)Ring of Fire
Through July 23 at Porthouse Theatre, 3143 O'Neil Rd., Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884,