The new Johnny Cash musical, and more
Check out our roundup of three new shows from the Great White Way and beyond: David Browne reviews Ring of Fire, the Johnny Cash jukebox musical; Jason Clark reports on the period farce ”Measure for Pleasure,” and Michelle Kung shares her thoughts on ”Grey Gardens,” an ambitious musical adaptation of a documentary.
First up: Ring of Fire…
Ring of Fire
Any Broadway show that opens with a solemn, rigid reading of Trent Reznor’s ”Hurt” is bound to be a surreal experience. But Ring of Fire only grows more mystifying by the minute. This isn’t a bio-musical — Walk the Line: Live on Stage! — but rather, as its subtitle announces, it’s ”The Johnny Cash Musical Show.” Using a structure that’s confounding right from the start, Ring of Fire intertwines the lives of three couples — a young, frisky one; a haggard, middle-aged one; and a graying, long-suffering one — who belt out songs written or covered by the Man in Black. Are these characters the same people, but at different stages in their lives? Are they three entirely different twosomes who are all friends? Are they metaphors for Cash and June Carter? The book is so vague — no one has names or, for that matter, personalities — that it’s hard to tell.
But those head-scratchers are the least of the musical’s problems. The show’s brain trust — including creator Richard Maltby Jr., who in a previous lifetime gave us Ain’t Misbehavin’ — treats Cash’s austere songs as schmaltz or gags. The cast members either croon to each other as if starring in a Nashville soap opera, or romp around in modern-day Hee Haw settings that play into the worst white-Southern-trash stereotypes. (A Grand Ole Opry segment is particularly ghastly.) Starting with its Hallmark-card backdrops, little in the show feels connected to Cash’s life, or anyone‘s life. Except for moments when Cash’s religious devotion is summoned, his somber dignity is all but erased; it’s heartbreaking, for instance, to see Kris Kristofferson’s ”Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” practically played for laughs. The cast, which includes one bona-fide pop-country singer (Lari White, who looks and sounds like a lost Judd), is energetic and makes the best of it, even when made to do a happy-face line dance. And the mere fact that I just typed line dance in a sentence about a Johnny Cash musical says everything one needs to know about the strange, misguided beast that is Ring of Fire. (Tickets: Call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, or visit Telecharge.com)
Measure for Pleasure
”Don’t you f—ing laugh!” warns the drunken cad Will Blunt (The Pillowman‘s redoubtable Michael Stuhlbarg) in one of many asides to the audience in David Grimm’s bawdy, naughty period farce, but you probably won’t anyway. A strenuously overbaked Restoration-style tale of mistaken identity with a bit of transsexualism thrown in, it contains just about every colloquialism for genitalia and sex acts imaginable; however, the whole affair plays as if a lascivious pervert keeps telling you the same joke over and over again. The cast, which also includes Taboo‘s Euan Morton and Seinfeld‘s Wayne Knight, give the leaden material a sturdy go, but at more than two-and-a-half hours, their efforts are not enough to disguise the play’s considerable sloppiness, a letdown after Grimm’s compelling Kit Marlowe at the Public Theater some years back. Only the very easily amused will get much pleasure from this Measure. (Tickets: Call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, or visit Telecharge.com)
Documentaries aren’t standard sources of inspiration for musicals, but the Maysles brothers’ 1975 cult fave — about eccentrics ”Big” Edie Bouvier Beale and her daughter ”Little” Edie — isn’t your typical documentary. A revealing portrait of two recluses (and Jackie Kennedy relatives) sequestered in a flea- and raccoon-infested ”museum of perversity,” the dark story of the Beales’ life, as adapted by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), works surprisingly well in musical format. Much of the credit goes to Christine Ebersole, who, in a neat twist, plays Big Edie in the first act — set on the eve of Little Edie’s engagement to Joe Kennedy Jr. in 1941 — and gives a spot-on performance as grown-up Little Edie in the second, set in 1973. In their desire to recapture specific details from the documentary, however, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie have whipped up a repertoire of odd but ultimately unmemorable songs (”Jerry Likes My Corn”), a glut of which ultimately weigh down the pace. (Tickets: Call 212-279-4200, or visit Ticketcentral.com)