The intimate stage of the Mercury Theater is depicting the story of a small town boy who finds his way to fame. “Ring of Fire” follows the life of Johnny Cash from childhood to icon and the jukebox musical tells the story of his love, life and struggles.
The multi-talented cast and ensemble, which has only seven performers, pulls in the audience with Cash’s foot-stomping music, which once topped the U.S. music charts.
“Ring of Fire” was conceived in 2006 by Richard Maltby Jr., best known for his direction of “Ain’t Misbehavin” and “Fosse.” Its staging at the Mercury Theater is the work of Russell as director, with Walter Stearns and Richard Friedman co producing.
“I thought that this was a really inventive way of sharing Johnny’s art with the world,” Stearns said.
Before working on this show, Russell said he didn’t consider himself a Johnny Cash fan but, as he dug deeper, he realized how much depth there was to Cash’s lyrics.
“He’s an American Icon,” Russell said. “I can’t remember a time I wasn’t aware of him and his music.”
At Mercury, it has been “refined” and turned into a more colorful piece that Stearns said presents a biographical look into Cash’s life.
A benefit of Mercury Theater is the smaller space, which has proved better suited to telling Johnny Cash’s than the large space of Broadway.
“The proscenium stage at Mercury allows us to do things we couldn’t do,” Russell said. “By having the ability to use isolated lighting, we were able to keep old Johnny separate [from the ongoing story].”
The intimate staging at Mercury, created by set designer Angela Miller, allows the actors to connect with the audience on a more personal level and gives a better understanding of the love, faith, struggle, and success of Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash.
In this rendition, the actors do the moving, not the set. This gives the show grounding and pulls focus into the story line, which is interchangeably told by an older Cash, played by Kent M. Lewis, and a young Cash, played by Michael Goodman.
As soon as the cast takes the stage, the walls lined with instruments came alive and play as big a part in the performance as Johnny and June Cash themselves.
Each performer played various instruments ranging from guitars to the harmonica.
“Having to play and sing and act all at the same time is something I had to work really hard to become fluent at,” said Cory Goodrich, who plays June Carter.
Goodrich had learned to play guitar within the past year but, for this particular role, she also learned to play the auto harp.
Every cast member switched from one instrument to the next between scenes and the two actors playing Cash paid their dues by holding their guitars up high.
The audience quickly recognized the country twang of Cash’s iconic songs Hits such as “Get Rhythm,” “Jackson” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” and they were bouncing in their seats as the cast took them on a journey from Cash’s childhood to his days in the Grand O’l Opry to the time he spent in prison.
The cast closed out the show with a fan favorite, “A Boy Named Sue” and was given a warm standing ovation by the audience on Thursday night’s preview.
“You’re not going to find better musicianship than on that stage,” Russell said of his close-knit cast.
“So far so good. It’s only going to get better from here.”