Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash is a musical featuring the music of the late singer while providing an abbreviated overview of his life. This musical homage starring Ron E. Rains, Michael D. Potter, Aja Wiltshire, Elleon Dobias, Erik Hellman, and Roy James Brown plays at Drury Lane Theatre through October 22, 2023.
Ring of Fire was conceived by William Meade and created and directed by Richard Maltby, Jr. The musical premiered at the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, New York, in 2005, and opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in 2006.
The six performers in the musical play multiple roles to give a glimpse at moments in Cash’s life and career through his music. The show includes over 25 of Cash’s most popular songs, such as “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ring of Fire,” “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “Cry, Cry, Cry,” and “Man in Black.”
Productions of Ring of Fire have been praised for the show’s energetic and uplifting performances, its heartwarming story, and its faithful renditions of Cash’s music. The show has been produced all over the world and has been seen by millions of people, and the production on stage at Drury Lane shows why audiences respond so passionately. On the night of review, the audience was immediately on their feet at the end of the performance to applaud the cast during the show’s finale – the ultimate sign of respect.
The musical’s title comes from Cash’s iconic song “Ring of Fire,” which was written by Cash’s future wife, June Carter. The song is a powerful expression of love and passion, and it perfectly captures the intensity of Cash and Carter’s relationship.
Ring of Fire is more than just a musical about Johnny Cash. It is also a story about love, faith, and redemption. The show is mostly a retrospect on Cash’s career successes, but it does touch on how Cash overcame his struggles with addiction and self-doubt to become one of the most successful and influential musicians of all time.
Michael D. Potter plays Johnny Cash as a young man breaking into the industry and then growing into stardom. Potter has the prerequisite striking figure and deep bass voice to be very believable as the young country singer-songwriter. His ability to connect to the character should come as no surprise. He has a long history of performing as the man in black in productions of Million Dollar Quartet including the national tour.
I can relate to Potter in a way. He has spent much of his career playing either Johnny Cash or his contemporary Elvis Presley in musicals and revues around the world. There’s something exciting about finding one’s niche. I had the great fortune of being associated in similar fashion with Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, West Side Story, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. For many years I jumped from one production of these popular titles to the next – going wherever the work took me. It’s clear that Potter has achieved that same level of conquest with the role of Johnny Cash.
Like Potter, director Scott Weinstein and music director Chuck Mead both have a celebrated history with Million Dollar Quartet. Weinstein served as the associate and resident director for the Broadway National Tour. Mead was the music director for the Broadway production of the Tony-award winner. Their familiarity with Johnny Cash and his music is clearly apparent in the wonderful staging and musical quality of Ring of Fire.
As gifted as Potter’s performance as young Johnny Cash is, Ron E. Rains’ appearance as the more seasoned, senior version of the singer takes the character to a place of being uncannily real. Rains not only has the barrel-chested look of the artist down pat, he even perfectly captures the subtle shakiness that always characterized Cash’s singing and talking. It is such a masterful performance that it is not a far leap of faith to believe you are witnessing the real thing.
Aja Wiltshire simply glows as Cash’s second wife, June Carter – a star in her own right. She has a beautiful and expressive voice and nails the bubbly country artist’s demeanor and flowery personality. She lights up the stage with a voice that soothes the soul, while her humor peppers the night with laughter.
The entire cast is made up of extremely talented multi-instrumentalists, with actors switching instruments throughout the performance. In terms of their specialty instruments, Roy James Brown is a standout bass player, Erik Hellman has exquisite guitar technique, and Elleon Dobias is a dynamite fiddle player. Dobias also provides touching moments as Cash’s first wife Vivian.
Scenic design by Angela Weber Miller gives the players a beautiful backdrop for their performances. The revolving set is both awe-inspiring in detail and in function – allowing for thematic elements suggesting the story takes place at the close of Cash’s life, symbolized by a train station as the end of the line. Anthony Churchill’s projections across the back of the stage compliment Miller’s scenic design perfectly.
Costumes by Isumi Inaba may seem simple but are clearly well-researched and constructed to be period-authentic and capture the spirit of Cash’s career. Lighting design by Lee Fiskness is excellent. Sound design is by Ray Nardelli.
Ring of Fire isn’t heavy on story. This is a peek at key moments in Cash’s life. Most of the events are told in generalities, with the focus being on the music. And the music is wonderfully done.
The only thing that is really missing is Johnny Cash’s last hit, a stylized cover of Trent Reznor’s pain-riddled song “Hurt.” That song about pain, addiction, and self-loathing was the perfect endcap to Cash’s career.
“Hurt” was featured in the Broadway production of Ring of Fire. However, it is not present in all regional productions and is missing from the Drury Lane mounting.
The reason to exclude the song from the Drury Lane production could be a directorial choice, or it could be a licensing issue since Cash only covered the song and did not actually write it. It is the only thing missing from an otherwise ideal interpretation of the material.
The Johnny Cash career retrospective ends the evening with Cash’s comedic gem “A Boy Name Sue” penned by Shel Silverstein. It is a nice way to close the performance, putting a smile on everyone’s face in the audience and a glow in their hearts.
Fans of Johnny Cash’s music and career will feel touched by heaven by Drury Lane Theatre’s production of Ring of Fire. But you don’t have to be a Johnny Cash devotee to enjoy this blend of theater and musical tribute concert. A delightful time will be had by all.
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash plays through October 22, 2023 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace. For ticket information visit www.DruryLaneTheatre.com or call the box office at (630) 530-0111.
Photo credit: Brett Beiner
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area
Don’t miss a review, feature story, news item, or editorial – Get every new Life and Times story delivered directly to your email!
Follow Life and Times on Facebook (/LifeandTimesToday)
Please help spread the word about Life and Times by sharing this article on your Social Media apps.