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Rep's 'Ring of Fire' campy fun 

Songs on the money, but wanting for Cash.

'RING OF FIRE': Jason Edwards stars as Johnny Cash.
  • 'RING OF FIRE': Jason Edwards stars as Johnny Cash.

Even with the rich life and songs of country music legend Johnny Cash at its core, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's season opener walks the line between toe-tapping tribute concert and biographical bore. A flop in the cosmopolitan territory of Broadway in 2006, the jukebox musical transports its country charm to a friendlier court — Cash's home state. But the current production has retained flaws from the original that loyal fans of the Man in Black are unlikely to ignore.

The musical is a muddled mixture of Cash's biography narrated by cast members, snippets of dramatic dialogue and renditions of songs from his extensive catalogue. Endorsed by Cash himself before his death in 2003, the production nonetheless fails to present the musician as a fully formed character. Instead, a cast of four (Trenna Barnes, Troy Burgess, Jason Edwards, Kelli Provart) vaguely represent both Cash and others in his life as they take turns crooning the hits. In theory, Cash serves as merely the man behind the songs; the music is the main character here, and the band doesn't disappoint. There's no orchestra pit for these players, who sit onstage with the actors, perched on the front porch of a log cabin, stomping their feet, rattling tin buckets, slapping the bass, squeezing an accordion, wheezing the harmonica. The talented musicians get in on the acting, too. In a winning comedic sketch that mirrors the variety show style of the Grand Ole Opry, guitarists Brent Moyer and John Foley, along with fiddle player Brantley Kearns, don silly hats and get the audience guffawing to "Dirty Old Egg Suckin' Dog."

With such resonant material and seasoned musicians, the jukebox musical format is fun. Autobiographical songs like "Country Boy" and "Five Feet High and Rising" suit Cash's years growing up on his family's cotton fields in Arkansas; the untimely death of his brother Jack unfolds to the church hymnal "In the Sweet By and By," which serves as a fitting tribute to Cash's gospel-crooning youth. The set-up also works when Cash and Carter (Burgess and Barnes) meet backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, warbling the charming "If I Were a Carpenter."

Unfortunately the show's structure breaks down in the second act when the chart toppers no longer match up with Cash's history. Power belter Kelli Provart and Jason Edwards — a member of the original Broadway cast, who both nails Cash's unmistakable gravelly baritone and directs the production — give it their best as older Johnny and June figures. But even their pitch-perfect delivery and undeniable chemistry can't heat up the limitations mandated by the jukebox musical formula. The pair's numbers tease the audience with the promise of depth and substance. But after seeing them together in duets like the steamy, attitude-flaunting "Jackson" and a somber "The Far Side Banks of Jordan," we're left longing for more. The duo has enough gravitas to convey the ups and downs of a life-long love with nothing more than the words of the songs and a well-timed smooch. Which begs the question: What could they do with a bit of exposition? We're left wanting to know more about their famed romance, rumored affair and eventual marriage, but the format stubbornly shies away from the interesting struggles that give depth and meaning to Cash's works.

The show claims to only illustrate stories from the songs and not portray Cash, but with so many autobiographical songs on the score, the program can't help but center around his life. That means numbers that stray from his personal history feel forced and out of place. Most notably, his famous prison anthems become puzzling when fictitious characters in the songs come to life. The cast and musicians don jumpsuits, rattle chains and stand behind bars as they perform "Orleans Parish Prison" and "Folsom Prison Blues." The shuffling feet of their chain gang are a sonic delight on "Going to Memphis," and fiddle player Brantley Kearns entertains with the morose, wife-killing tale "Delia's Gone." But where is Cash? The prisoners are the performers, and the man who brought down the jailhouse for inmates in real life is completely absent.

As a jukebox musical, the show does what it intends — presenting an evening of campy, fluffy musical numbers — but "Ring of Fire" could've been so much more.

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