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Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park
Review by Scott Cain | Season Schedule

The Cast
Photo by Mikki Schaffner Photography
In recent years, musicals based on the life of a performer and using the performer's songs have become commonplace on Broadway and beyond. The national tour of MJ will be arriving next week, but local theatregoers can enjoy another such show now. Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash is currently playing at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, and it features five excellent performers skillfully bringing the country music legend's song catalog and story to life.

Ring of Fire was created by Richard Maltby, Jr., based on a concept by William Meade. The show premiered on Broadway in 2006, but was revamped and scaled down into a new version by Maltby and Jason Edwards in 2013. It's part concert, part docudrama. Spoken narration to provide a general outline of Johnny Cash's life is delivered in between or interspersed during songs written or made famous by the singer and his wife June Carter. The framework provides enough context to convey Cash's beginnings as the child of poor cotton farmers, how he got his start with Sun Records, how he met his wife at the Grand Ole Opry, his addiction to alcohol and pills, and other life events. Without a traditional book, there isn’t much depth, but that's probably because the songs provide that, and the emphasis of the show is on the music.

Cash was a storyteller through his songwriting, with many pieces being autobiographical to some extent, so they reflect much about the creator and performer. The songs - whether the country tunes he's most known for, spirituals, rockabilly, or blues flavored numbers - convey the melancholy and complex demeanor of a man that experienced a lot during his life. Musical highlights include "I Walk The Line", "I've Been Everywhere", "Folsom Prison Blues", "Man in Black", and the title number.

The five singer/actors also supply all of the instrumental accompaniment for the show, and it's a true delight witnessing their versatility and skill at work. Everyone plays more than one instrument, and some as many as five. Alex Canty is an exuberant young Johnny, and shows off fine dancing as well. David Rowen is a jack-of-all-trades on stage, and impresses throughout. Leenya Rideout is a mean fiddle player, portrays older June with tenderheartedness, and also serves as the show's music director (special kudos for that role). Allison Ann Kelly, who graduated not far away at Wright State University, really sparkles as young June and other characters, and seems to switch instruments for every song. Matt Cusack embodies the personality and deep baritone voice of Cash in his later years with amazing accuracy, and delivers the show's most well-known numbers superbly. The cast sounds exquisite singing harmonies and in playing the unique orchestrations, both of which bring added dimensions and vibrancy to Cash's iconic songbook.

Director /Choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge has deservedly become a regular at Cincy Playhouse in recent years, and provides apt blocking, character interactions, and tone to this piece. With the lack of depth in the book and the actors all tied to instruments, this show could easily be a stagnant one, but Dodge infuses energy in the staging and transitions to avoid such pitfalls.

The set design by Chen-Wei Liao includes a clever reveal and well-suited touches to provide nods to the various settings of the story. Lauren T. Roark's costumes are attractive and varied, and of course feature some of Cash's all-black outfits for which he was known. The lighting by Matthew Richards includes several pleasant effects and many warm hues on the back scrim.

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's production of Ring of Fire showcases five extremely talented and versatile performers, and worthwhile direction and design. The only complaint one might have is in the choice of the show itself. Playhouse doesn't mount as many musicals as it used it, and with only one scheduled this season, choosing a small-scale, semi-concert title is a disappointment in comparison to past choices. Still, this is a crowd-pleasing production, and one where Johnny Cash's musical library truly comes alive.

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash runs through October 1, 2023, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, 962 Mt Adams Cir, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit