As a piece of theater, Ring of Fire is so ineffectual that even panning it seems unfair, like kicking a dog that doesn’t exist. A rambling assemblage of songs written or recorded by Johnny Cash, it meanders through the many decades and moods of Cash’s career as if it wanted to prove they were all the same. Occasionally it tries to stage the songs as dramatic scenes or dialogues, which only proves that they’re not; at its best, as in Geoff Mack’s wonderfully silly “I’ve Been Everywhere,” it stops pretending it’s theater at all, relaxes into just being a country-music concert party, and has a tolerably good time. Too bad this happens so rarely: The evening overall seems both perfunctory and interminable, just as it seems most fake whenever it tries to git down and show how country it is.
Country music has in common with Broadway a degree of dependence on the performer’s presence: It’s the way Johnny Cash sang these songs, many of which he didn’t write, that links him to them in the public mind. Maltby’s cast mostly try neither to mimic him nor to impress their own blandish personalities on the material. They seem to be trapped in a permanent state of apathetic drift, which only Cass Morgan and Jarrod Emick manage to shake off for a moment or two. The seven-member band, which mingles with the cast onstage, often displays more personality than the actors, who tend to fade into the cheesy photo-postcard projected backdrops. It’s hard to know who this affectless show’s intended for. Real country people won’t buy it. Your average New York theatergoer, who wouldn’t know Ferlin Husky from Ferlinghetti, could care less. Presumably the target audience is corporate middle-management types whose grandparents were country and who feel guilty about having sold the family farm to a Toyota plant. They can have it.