Howard Leu

Johnny Cash songs to set Stackner Cabaret afire

The Rep's Stackner Cabaret presents a Johnny Cash song survey in a revue by Richard Maltby Jr. and William Meade.

By - Mar 1st, 2013 04:54 pm

You’d assume that Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, opening Sunday at the Milwaukee Reperatory Theater’s Stackner Cabaret, is about the life and music of the Man in Black. Well, not quite. This revue celebrates Cash’s music without telling the story of his life. Instead, Ring of Fire highlights the value of the music and focuses on the stories his songs convey.

William Meade and Richard Maltby Jr. created the show, which opened on Broadway in 2006. Maltby, who is also the director, is the king of musical revues – no one else has ever won a Tony for Best Musical for a revue, and he’s won two:  Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 1978 and Fosse in 1999.

Oddly enough, Maltby professed to not be a big fan of revues. He fines that the format lends itself too easily to song-and-dance shows lacking “inner life.” Nor did he particularly appreciate Johnny Cash’s music prior to working on Ring of Fire. In a roundabout way, that might have helped him.

Richard Maltby, Jr., Creator and director of Ring of Fire: The Musical of Johnny Cash. Photo credit:

Maltby has a keen ability to find key aspects in lyrics and make the songs in his revues tell overarching stories. Each person may walk away with a different story, based on their own interpretation and what they relate to. And if they don’t, “they’ll have an evening of absolutely fabulous songs,” said Maltby.

“I look for the content in the songs that a book-musical would have,” he said. “Of course, it would require that the songs, or in the case of Fosse, the dances, to have literary merit. And Johnny Cash does. The language is very simple, the language of ordinary people. It’s poetry, and it’s dramatic. And revues are effective in making the music relatable. Story-lines often limit the imagination and relatability, whereas a well-done revue gives the audience a chance to take more from the music.”

Unlike other revues that he has done throughout his long and celebrated career, Ring of Fire has dialogue and narration to guide the audience into the content of the lyrics.

Jason Edwards was part of the original Broadway production, the cast recording and will perform at the Rep. His character is often mistaken to be a persona of Cash, but it isn’t. Edwards, a veteran of numerous productions across the country, was also instrumental in helping Maltby find the perfect cast for this production.

It wasn’t easy to find brilliant musicians who could also sing and deliver dialog while constantly switching instruments, change scenery, and maneuvering around on a smaller stage. Maltby’s original production had a cast of 10, scaled to five for the Stackner Cabaret’s intimate space.

“We have unbelievably good musicians. I’m not sure that a lot of theaters could come up with this cast,” said Maltby.

Maltby, originally from Ripon, Wis., is working with the Milwaukee Rep for the first time. He said that the Rep’s staff and crew are outstanding, and he’s a big fan of the restaurant at the Stackner Cabaret, which is open to the public before and after each evening show.

The show includes a big slice of the Johnny Cash songbook, including “I Walk the Line,” “Folsom Prison,” and “Jackson.” Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash opens on March 1 and runs until May 5. Visit the Rep’s website or call 414 224-9490 for tickets.

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