In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

"Ring of Fire" will play at the Milwaukee Rep through May 26. (PHOTO: Michael Brosilow)

Fall into the Milwaukee Rep's "Ring of Fire"

With a world-famous musical career that spanned over 50 years, beloved singer and songwriter Johnny Cash set ablaze a new era of country music that still burns in the hearts of generations young and old. But while many fans can recite the dark and humorous lyrics of "Folsom Prison Blues" and "A Boy Named Sue," not many have thought of Johnny's songs as a living record for his life.

But put in the right order, it seems that the singer spent 50 years not only creating individual works of art, but his own autobiographical musical as well. In 2006, William Meade and director Richard Maltby Jr. headed the Broadway production of "Ring of Fire." Now, a licensed version of the work adapted from the Broadway production by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Jason Edwards, showcases 32 of Johnny Cash's most iconic songs and bringing this country cornerstone back to life for two hours, in two acts, on the Milwaukee Rep stage.

Decorated in banjos, ukuleles, acoustic guitars and electric bases, Milwaukee Rep's Stackner Cabaret theater emanates Southern charm before a single note is played. Large golden sunflowers reach for the imaginary Memphis sun and two rings of old-school light bulbs rest as arches above the now spotlighted Man in Black. If audiences had shut their eyes, they could have made believe it was 1970.

Kent M. Lewis, who plays the roles of Johnny Cash's father, Johnny Cash the Narrator and the All-Grown-Up Johnny Cash, could not have been better suited to play all three roles. In another life, perhaps Lewis might have been Johnny Cash's vocal twin and ukulele-lovin' brother. The actor tells the tales of Johnny's life with guitar always in hand, using the same deep-throated conversationalism for which Johnny was known.

There's minimal set changes – a chair moved here, a clothing change there – but the mood in each song is made through this cast of five, all actors, all singers and all incredibly talented musicians. At one point, James David Larson, who plays one of Johnny's brothers, plays his cello upside down and between his legs. Alex Keiper, who stars as Johnny's mother as well as his first and second wife, shines with her strumming of the autoharp.

Corbin Mayer was especially mesmerizing as the young Johnny Cash. While his voice straddled the line between Johnny and Elvis, Mayer's musical portrayal of the singer transformed from a young and innocent church boy to a rough and tough musician battling drug addiction gave a whole new meaning to the song "I've Been Everywhere."

Of course, the fan-favorite of the night was the concert-like recreation of "Ring of Fire," with blood red spotlights and the arched light bulbs gleaming like rolling flames. Mayer, Lewis and the rest of the cast completed the illusion by dressing to the nines in white-lined black suits.

While the show is considered a musical, save for Lewis' narration between choruses, there are little to no non-musical words spoken throughout the whole production. The show is much more like a Southern concert, where the band members seem to be having the time of their lives, everything moves at a lightning fast pace, and if they're lucky, an audience member might just receive a wink and a wave from the stars.

It's a small set and a small ensemble, but the production not only works, it works magic. "Ring of Fire" not only shows viewers the stories behind Johnny Cash's music, but also that Johnny had been sharing his story with fans for years through every note and lyric. Those who hadn't already fallen into Johnny's ring of fire will certainly do so with his new ring of musical theater.


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