Ring of Fire at Broadway Palm Dinner Theater Makes Johnny Cash Cute

I like to think that Johnny Cash, the country music singer-songwriter and American institution, mellowed with age. I suspect that late in life, he'd left far behind him the hard-edged life of a bitter former yokel who cheated on his wife and became addicted to "every drug there was to try." By the time of his death in 2003, I'm betting Cash had become like a lot of old guys who'd once been tough and mean: more sympathetic, warmer; and touched by any tribute to his long life and career.

But I am not Johnny Cash. And I have seen a dinner theater production of Ring of Fire, a show that wants to turn the dark beauty of some of this man's best work into a blandly cheerful greatest hits package. I am not pleased.

I didn't hate Ring of Fire. Not entirely. There were things to like about this cheeky production, playing for the next several weeks at Broadway Palm Dinner Theater in Mesa. The band was quite good, especially its fiddle player, Jason Labrador. And a couple of the male singers were nice to listen to, although I wound up wishing that Scott Moreau, a boyish beanpole of a man with the world's longest sideburns, hadn't tried so hard to sound like Cash himself throughout Act Two.

A tent card on my table offering specialty drinks named for Johnny Cash songs (including one called the "Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog") was my first clue that things were going to be cutely choreographed and jolly where they needed to be perhaps more solemn and cynical. But the problem with this show isn't just that it wants to gloss over the complexities that made the man and his music so compelling. It's that Ring of Fire can't decide whether it wants to tell a story or just be a jukebox.

The story commences with pages of narration from the cast about Cash's childhood, but by the middle of the first act, the biography has all but dried up. From then on, we're tossed the occasional fact, always in first person, from Cash's life. His various drug addictions and brushes with the law are given sidelong glances as the cast rushes into another song, and entire sections of his life — his first marriage, his Sun Records sessions, his prison albums — are missing altogether. Creator Richard Maltby should have either done away with Cash's life story altogether or brought us a more detailed account of this formidable man, who all at once dies in the middle of Act Two, before we've even gotten to his early late-period hits. What follows is a long medley of those songs and the quick devolution of an already lackluster stage show into the unintentional camp of a Hee Haw sketch, replete with audience participation and a salute to Old Glory via a recitation of Cash's "Ragged Old Flag."

I wasn't offended by this cornball confection. I was bored. And maybe a little confused by all these candy-ass renditions of Cash's dark, angry songs. "I Walk the Line" as a Virginia reel? Okay.

There are flashes of brilliance. "Going to Memphis" is a gloomy, angry number in which the male cast keeps time on metal bars as they lurch across a darkened stage, snapping off angry lyrics about slavery. And any time Labrador takes the stage to fiddle a little, the entire production is briefly elevated. But then the whole thing slides back into silliness with, for example, a skit in which a Minnie Pearl impersonator yodels while a cornpone cadet strums a ukulele, crosses his eyes, and makes faces.

With the exception of Moreau and the affable Mike Long, the male performers are a charmless bunch. The opportunity to hear women interpreting Cash's lyrics is a rare one that's missed here because the four female cast members sing without much soul. (A solid duet arrangement for "I Still Miss Someone" comes off as a dirge thanks to Rachel Goldrick's reedy vocals.) The songs work best when the cast sings harmony, as with the stirring "Five Feet High and Rising."

Overall, though, Ring of Fire is a far cry from Ain't Misbehavin', the Fats Waller tuner that made Maltby's name in the late '70s. This time out, Maltby's not celebrating a man of song so much as making mincemeat out of him. Johnny Cash, who often sang about trains, was a locomotive of a man. This musical revue celebrating his life is a choo-choo.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela