Debuting on Broadway in 2006 at the Ethel Berrymore Theatre, the jukebox-style musical of Johnny Cash songs “Ring of Fire” reluctantly lived in the shadow of the then recently released biopic “Walk the Line.” The film, which stars Joaquin Phoenix in the main role, explores the dark and gritty aspects of Cash’s ascent to fame and went on to earn five Academy Award nominations.
Unlike the film, the play, “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash,” is exactly what its title suggests: a celebration of the songs and not the life of a man who defined a generation of country music. Metropolis Performing Arts Centre has chosen to mount this jubilant toe-tapper as the conclusion to its 15th anniversary season, and I couldn’t be more thrilled they did. If the purpose of the theater is to provide us an escape from the drudgery of our daily lives, Metropolis’ production not only hits that mark, it sets the bar for what a musical revue ought to be.
Created by Richard Maltby, Jr., the show is directed by Metropolis’ Executive and Artistic Director Joe Keefe with associate direction by Robin M. Hughes. “Ring of Fire” offers a highly energetic ensemble of stellar performers belting out familiar musical favorites, including “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog” and, of course, the old standard “Ring of Fire.” The strength of a musical of this genre rests entirely on the capabilities and talents of its ensemble, and this one truly captivates from the moment the house lights go down through the final bows. Keefe and Hughes have engineered an impressively engaged group of actors with performances that inspire us to bob our heads and bounce our shoulders as they take us on an exciting journey of musical nostalgia.
Though the show offers no stars in the traditional sense of the word, there are standout performances by several in the cast. Tommy Malouf, who has been given the challenge of portraying a loosely defined version of Johnny Cash, rises to the occasion by offering a spot-on duplication of Cash’s famously smooth baritone-bass range, complete with a mastery of the inflections and vowel placements we know as being a part of the singer’s recognizable vocal timbre. Equally impressive is the performance by Sari Greenberg, who shares several awe-inspiring duets with Malouf and whose solos often induce chills as she flawlessly sings fortissimo. Ensemble members Jacob Fjare and Abby Vombrack also give notable performances and frequently steal the show with their comedic reactions and thoroughly defined characters.
Every aspect of this production exceeds expectations, including its thoughtful and well-designed technical elements. It would be remiss not to mention the detailed scenic design provided by Mitchell Ost, whose country barn setting immediately catches your eye with its artfully arranged rustic motif. Rachel Parent’s colorful costumes add a vivid layer of personality to the characters, particularly the jewel-toned dresses the women of the show adorn. No review of the production would be complete without a shout-out to the delightfully rumpus band that shares the stage with the characters and delivers a powerful country western sound.
With all the negativity and contention in our modern world, it’s nice to have an opportunity to leave our troubles at the door and immerse ourselves into a fun and dynamic night at the theater. A big round of applause to Metropolis Performing Arts Centre for producing a show that will have you singing and smiling to its recognizable tunes for at least a week after the viewing.
• Joshua Baggett is a director and stage manager who has worked regionally in Chicago, Milwaukee, Orlando, and Washington, DC. He is a proud member of the Actors’ Equity Association and associate member of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. Visit www.jbbcreative.com for more.
“RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH”
WHEN: Through September 3
WHERE: Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights
COST & INFO: Two acts, one intermission. Tickets: $38. Tickets and showtimes: 847-577-2121 or www.metropolisarts.com