“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash,” Penobscot Theatre Company’s first show of its 42nd season, will satisfy fans of classic country but leave theatergoers who prefer meatier material longing for the complexity of “August: Osage County,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that topped off last season.
This is the third year producing artistic director Bari Newport has scheduled a piece that showcased country music to kick off the season. “Always … Patsy Cline” in 2013 and “Honky Tonk Angels” in 2014 were successful financially — and “Ring of Fire” should be, if Sunday’s sold out performance is any indication of Cash’s appeal in Greater Bangor. “Ring of Fire,” like the two previous season openers, has a thin plot that attempts to weave nearly 40 songs into the performance. After three consecutive years, this format is getting tiresome, the way “A Christmas Carol” does after being performed for a number of consecutive holiday seasons.
The use of dozens of photographs of Cash, his family and band members projected on three screens throughout the two-act show make “Ring of Fire” appear to be a biography, but that was not the intent of creator Richard Maltby Jr.
Maltby told Playbill in 2006, when the show premiered on Broadway, “it’s about home and family and getting together and loving somebody and having a backyard and generations living together, it’s about what holds you together in the face of a hard life, it’s about the really basic family values.”
The cast of four men and one woman does a fine job capturing that sentiment while performing the full range of songs Cash wrote and recorded over his long career. Those songs range from “Cry, Cry, Cry” to “Big River” to “I Walk the Line” to “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Andrew Crowe, a member of the ensemble and the music director for the production, is outstanding and at times carries the show alone. He plays multiple instruments but best charms the audience with his fiddle. Crowe has appeared in “Ring of Fire” many times, according to his biography — and it shows.
Crowe and fellow Actors’ Equity performer Jeremy Sevelovitz raise the bar for local performers Ira Kramer and Gaylen Smith. While each actor honors Cash in his interpretation of the songwriter’s music, the show soars when their voices harmonize.
Ashley Marie Lewis best performs the songs Cash wrote in the 1950s, including “I Still Miss Someone” and “All Over Again.” Her performance with Sevelovitz of “Ring of Fire,” written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore, is a showstopper.
Sound problems that have marred previous musicals have been solved for this production, most likely by sound designer Brandie Rita. The rest of the technical team, which includes director Michele Colvin, set designer Tricia Hobbs, lighting designer Scout Hough and costume designer Kevin Koski, shared a seamless vision for production that allows each number to stand on its own.
As a vehicle for Cash’s music, “Ring of Fire” is a two-dimensional presentation of a man whose artistry was far more complex. The success of the production most likely will put PTC in a secure financial position for the rest of season — albeit one that doesn’t look like it will challenge audiences the way playwright Tracy Letts’ did this past spring.
“Ring of Fire” runs through Sept. 27 at the Bangor Opera House. For information, call 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.
Editor’s Note: The Bangor Daily News is sponsor of the Penobscot Theatre Company.