Don't go into Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash expecting to see the Man in Black's life story. Oh, he's in there (most often portrayed by the rumble-voiced Brian Mathis), though never referred to by name, but the lives we follow instead are those of symbolic Americans who are toughing it out in hardscrabble Depression-era America.
It's not until halfway through act one of this jukebox musical revue that the setting changes from cotton fields to recording studios and the Grand Ole Opry, and June Carter (Katrina Kratzer) croons with a young Cash (now played by Spencer Baker). But you won't mind the wobbly plot because the five singer-musicians in WaterTower Theatre's toe-tapping production don't leave you any time to consider it. They're too busy playing their guitars, harmonicas, basses, and fiddles into the ground during 38 of Cash's biggest hits.
Director B.J. Cleveland and music director Sonny Franks — who is part of the onstage quintet — have assembled a remarkably talented local cast, some of whom we knew were musical threats but also a few who come as a pleasant surprise.
Like Kratzer, for instance. She's been a longtime fixture in the orchestra pits, playing violin and fiddle better than anyone in Dallas-Fort Worth. She recently began to float onto the stage in productions like Dallas Theater Center's A Christmas Carol (where most of the actors now double up with instruments) and Theatre Three's A Civil War Christmas (which also featured onstage musical accompaniment).
But here Kratzer is not just a fiddling ornament. She sings to the rafters as the only female in the group, sounding particularly sweet on the tunes "I Still Miss Someone" and "Jackson." And thanks to Amanda J. Capshaw's costume design and June Carter-inspired wig, she looks great too.
Mathis is another discovery, not for his thunder-deep voice — which DFW has been enjoying for years — but for his guitar skills. He's joined by Ian Ferguson (who was part of the onstage band in WaterTower's most recent production, One Man, Two Guvnors), who gets his moment with the melancholy "Sunday Morning Coming Down," and Baker, who's relatively new to the area but plays a mean harmonica.
All together, these five run through Cash's song catalog at breakneck speed, giving what's essentially a tribute concert with a great backdrop (Bradley Gray's simple set lets Leann Burns' colorful lighting dominate). It's not a deep night of serious theater, nor is it a particularly revelatory concept from creators Richard Maltby Jr. and William Meade (who thankfully retooled the show after its lukewarm Broadway debut a decade ago). It's instead a showcase for local talent, and sometimes that's just fine.
WaterTower Theatre's production of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash runs through October 30.