The sun is out, the temperature is rising, and all over town, bad ideas are in bloom. Each year around this time, the dash to the Tony deadline, abetted by some kind of playwrights’ spring fever, makes theater traffic busy—and perilous. At the Barrymore, for instance, some well-meaning types have attempted to translate the dark, resonant songs of Johnny Cash to a bright Broadway stage. Does that sound like a good idea to you?
Well, it did to Richard Maltby Jr. The creator-director of Ring of Fire has strung together 38 Cash songs to tell an “almost mythic” story—not exactly Cash’s, but not not Cash’s, either. He opens with “Hurt,” a Trent Reznor song Cash recorded near the end of his life. Pacing the stage, an aged actor in black sings of various regrets, squinting meaningfully at the mezzanine. Three couples then march an archetypal path from childhood to maturity, amid overworked train imagery and twangy songs.
With its jukebox score and nameless characters, Ring of Fire bears discomfiting parallels to last year’s Lennon. But where the wannabe Beatles woefully faked their musicianship, Maltby’s actors really play their instruments. I mean really play, often holding their own alongside the show’s blazing eight-piece band. Now and then they honor their sorta-subject. Jeb Brown and Lari White’s amiable “While I’ve Got It on My Mind,” a laid-back seduction tune, shows how craftily Cash could make everyday speech fit a lyric.
Yet far more often, the show buries Cash’s songs in artifice. Thirty years ago, Maltby spun Fats Waller tunes into the celebrated Ain’t Misbehavin’; here, the results mostly look like interpretive dance. “I Walk the Line” is an irreducibly great, hard-edged love song, one not helped by cheesy projections of autumn foliage, or all them folks a-huggin’ and a-smoochin’ while they sing. Do we really need actors dressed as inmates to feel the despondency of “Folsom Prison Blues”?
Maltby saw that these songs are theatrical, but drew exactly the wrong lesson from the discovery. Cash’s songs contain a world. Trying to literalize them onstage (waging two separate barroom brawls, reiterating how much Daddy loved his beans, etc.) seems clunky, intrusive, like explaining a punch line. One person, at least—the man who sang them—understood the evocative potency of these songs:
But I can take you for a walk
Along a little country stream
I can make you see through lovers’ eyes
And understand their dreams
I can help you hear a baby’s laugh
And feel the joy it brings
Yes I do it with the songs that I sing
Inevitably some critics will find in this show further reason to abandon the jukebox genre. (Likeliest coup de grâce: “Man Comes Around,” performed in a giggle-inducing Shatnerian drone.) But Maltby’s bad idea masks the right impulse. It shouldn’t be so unusual to hear songs like Cash’s, or their language of sincere devotion, in the theater. A few years ago, similar material yielded the electrifying Hank Williams: Lost Highway. There, at least, is proof you can balance down-home sound and uptown craft without reducing a great American songwriter’s world to Hee Haw.
Ring of Fire may be the biggest bad idea in town, but it’s not the only one. At Playwrights Horizons, Grey Gardens has become a musical. Some people think that’s a bad idea because they love the movie; I think it’s a bad idea because I hate the movie. Try as I might, I see no glamour or delight in the predicament of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, two sick, sad women who needed many things, a Maysles brothers documentary not among them.
So the show’s creators deserve credit for turning a pretty bad idea into a pretty good show. The first act is situated decades before mother and daughter fall into cat-infested ruin. As Little Edie is poised to marry Joe Kennedy, Big Edie fusses about the piano, and various Bouvier cousins offer jokes that should have been resisted. (“Chintz!” exclaims young Jackie, foreshadowing her Camelot decorating binge.) The dances are too sprightly—too Broadway—but Frankel’s music captures the swing era without sounding derivative.
The second act advances the story to the era of the documentary (the seventies), and introduces fresh problems: Namely, there’s no story. With a bedridden mother and a daughter who can’t leave, librettist Doug Wright has nowhere to go, dramatically speaking. Fortunately the show has the resourceful lyrics of Michael Korie. (Years ago I worked for Michael, though without learning how to fashion a lyric as inventive as “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” Little Edie’s declaration of fashion independence.)
But the chief allure of Michael Greif’s production is its star, Christine Ebersole. She has the range to play Big Edie in Act One and the aging Little Edie in Act Two, and the skill to make both heartbreaking. Even better, Ebersole is the rare actor who doesn’t just know how to draw a laugh; she can control one. Offhand, I’d say it’s the best performance in New York. It’s hard to think ill of any idea that brought it to the stage.