When "Ring of Fire," the jukebox musical celebrating the songs of the late, great Johnny Cash, opened on Broadway in 2006, it felt very much in the shadow of "Walk the Line." That movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix, had been released the previous fall and was justly praised for its fulsome account of its man, who had died in 2003, as one of the most important American songwriters and performers of his century. It would go on to receive five Academy Award nominations and a worldwide gross of $186 million.
By contrast, "Ring of Fire," which was widely seen as milquetoast, one-dimensional and lacking in the smoldering danger one associates with Cash and his music, was a flop on Broadway. It lasted only a month and rarely has been seen since. The creator, Richard Maltby Jr., was in a tough spot back then. Had he tried to compete with "Walk the Line," he'd probably have been accused of duplication. And jukebox musicals are not generally known for their biographical complexity. They usually have other aims.
Anyway, time has marched on. And Maltby, long a man willing to revise his work, has retooled "Ring of Fire" to be more of a small-cast cabaret-style show, focusing on Cash's music (there are 32 numbers) and offering only light touches of his life. By getting away from the dangerous middle ground of half-revue, half-biography, where the Broadway show first landed, "Ring of Fire" is far more palatable and, for Cash fans, potentially quite an enjoyable foray through his material.
So it goes in Munster, Ind., where the skilled but unobtrusive director Brian Russell is using a fine cast of seven singer-actor-musicians, dividing the central role between Kent Lewis (as the older Cash) and Michael Monroe Goodman (as the younger version of the Man in Black). Cory Goodrich plays June Carter Cash. The supporting cast — almost everyone plays multiple instruments — is stocked with experience and recognizable Chicago faces, including musical director Malcolm Ruhl (of "Pump Boys and Dinettes" fame), Greg Hirte, Billy Shaffer and William Underwood. There is a big, sentimental set from Angie Miller, but it's not really needed. "Ring of Fire" works much better as a cabaret with a little context, which now is how it plays.
You still won't leave with great new insights into Cash, and you could argue that all here still could use a further dose of the bleak, a closer acquaintance with that cycle of sin and redemption you can find in so many of the Cash lyrics. But the ruggedly handsome Lewis, the veteran of many national tours, really fills out the Cash role and he sounds terrific. Goodman spent years in "Million Dollar Quartet" and he adds a more restless note. Goodrich has all the right charisma and, of course, an ideal voice for June.
You could see this crew happily removed to some cabaret space downtown, singing of a boy named Sue and an egg suckin' dog, and pleasing many Cash-loving tourists, here in the big city.
"Ring of Fire - The Music of Johnny Cash" at Theatre at the Center
When: Through March 30
Where: Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Ind.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $40-$44 at 219-836-3255 or theatreatthecenter.com