Ring of Fire: Milage may vary

Chad Willow, Candice Lively, Brittany Parker, and Jason Uhlmann.
Chad Willow, Candice Lively, Brittany Parker, and Jason Uhlmann.
Photo by Paul Nixdorf

Tickets for Ring of Fire, the latest show at the Plymouth Playhouse with the helpful subtitle of "the music of Johnny Cash," run between $26 and $38. The question is: What does the onstage revue of the Man in Black's music offer that a copy of Walk the Line and a greatest hits collection (or three) wouldn't give you?

It turns out to be a mixed bag. You're not going to learn much about Cash, his life, or his ups and downs. In the show there's a lot at the beginning about his family history, then a bit more about his parents, siblings, and the death of his brother. Finally, there's just a touch about his marriage and drug use and then... well, he dies.

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So it's really down to the music. The eight members of the cast -- five men and three women -- all take turns as Cash, running through plenty of greatest hits from his five-decade career. It takes quite a bit of time to get moving -- the family history going back centuries at the top doesn't help -- and just as they hit their stride with back-to-back readings of "Ring of Fire" and "Jackson," we get intermission. 

Not surprisingly, drugs make the show better, as its best moments come during the "Dark Years" of Act Two. After taunting us with a few bars of "Hurt," the cast presents a bevy of songs loaded with violence, murder, and abuse -- "Cocaine Blues," "Delia's Gone," and "Folsom Prison Blues" to name three -- that give the performers a chance to dig their figurative teeth into the material and have some fun that doesn't feel forced.

By the final run of hits, it just gets to be a bit exhausting. I was ready for the end with a rousing "I Walk the Line," but the cheese of "Ragged Old Flag" and a slow "I've Been Everywhere" were still to come. It's not that they weren't welcome, it's just that the show already felt complete before they arrived on the scene.

The players, for the most part, worked to keep the energy flowing throughout the 32 songs of the set. Musical director Chad Willow had the appropriate weary gravity for the darker side of Cash, while the other men brought out different facets of his songs and personality. The women had a different challenge, finding spaces within his tunes to not just showcase their talents, but to add something to the mix.

Maybe that's what I missed. Ring of Fire was certainly pleasant, but there was little that screamed, "I need to see this live onstage!" Nothing was particularly ragged (though some of the performers seemed to be going through the motions when the spotlight wasn't on them), but there was nothing to inspire me to dust off my copy of American Recordings or At Folsom Prison after getting home.

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash
Plymouth Playhouse
2705 Annapolis Ln., Plymouth
Through May 26
For tickets and information, call 763.553.1600 or visit online.
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Plymouth Playhouse

2705 Annapolis Lanene
Plymouth, MN 55441


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