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Man in black, sunny-side up

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March 13, 2006

When you think Johnny Cash, do you think spangles? Do you think ham bone and hoedown, aw-shucks smiles and down-home spunk? If you like your country music slick and shiny, "Ring of Fire," the sparkling new Broadway revue inspired by Cash's song catalogue, may be just the toe-tapping, clap-along hootenanny for you.

If, on the other hand, you appreciate the darker strains that gave even Cash's corniest novelty songs an inimitable, lived-in texture - you've wandered into the wrong barn dance, partner. No mistake, director-creator Richard Maltby Jr. has done a masterful job shaping a good-time anthology from tunes written or made famous by the black-clad Arkansas troubadour with the voice-of-God baritone. And Maltby hasn't flinched from Cash's outlaw narratives or abject Christian laments so much as he's sewn them into the show's warming quilt of generic Americana.

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The show doesn't have a plot so much as a threadbare theme with train travel as a recurring motif and three actors representing various stops along the journey: innocence (the engaging if vocally underpowered Jarrod Emick), experience (earnest, stubbly Jeb Brown), and transcendence (handsome, lightweight Jason Edwards). They're matched with three women who roughly embody similar life stages: frisky Beth Malone, laconic Lari White, and earth-motherly Cass Morgan.

To their credit, these six have convincing country voices, not Broadway belts, and they're supported seamlessly by eight versatile on-stage musicians. The music-making is the best thing about "Ring of Fire." Music director Jeff Lisenby keeps up a persistent rockabilly tick and boom, the vocal harmonies are as thick as hominy, and there's a hearty twang and bounce in the show's guitar-driven step. If the Broadway musical were to receive a full-on country music transfusion, it would sound pretty much like this.

But the quandary that nags every jukebox musical comes into sharp focus here: Do these songs live onstage? Cash stood stone-still and delivered them with the voice of a man who had hit bottom and lived to tell. The gravity-free "Ring of Fire" not only doesn't sound those low notes; it uses what might be called a karaoke-video aesthetic to illustrate the songs with a reductive literalness.

So the Shel Silverstein classic "A Boy Named Sue" gets played like a saloon brawl from a Wild West theme park, and Kris Kristofferson's lovely hangover ballad "Sunday Morning Coming Down" finds our hero in a morning-after shambles, swilling beer and picking out his "cleanest dirty shirt." It seems pedantic to point out the obvious, but these songs were not written to be acted on a stage; to watch performers wring them for theatrical meaning this way is to see them cruelly diminished.

As the film "Walk the Line" showed, Cash did spring to life opposite his wife and muse, June Carter, and some of the show's best moments play off this association. The Carter Family-inspired "Daddy Sang Bass" turns a prayerful family dinner into a lively gospel shindig, and the first act closes with a smashing medley of Cash-Carter duets - "If I Were a Carpenter," "Ring of Fire" and "Jackson" - that strikes some convincing sparks between Malone and Emick.

Borrowing a page from the video-game scenic design of "The Woman in White," Neil Patel splashes computer-animated projections across the sprawling cherrywood set. These unimaginative backdrops only accentuate the feeling that we've entered the Grand Ole Opry pavilion at Epcot Center. Step right up, folks, if you like your Johnny Cash served with a heavy dose of milk and sweetener. I prefer the man black, thanks.

RING OF FIRE. Created and directed by Richard Maltby Jr. Conceived by William Meade. Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., Manhattan. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday. Call 212-239-6200. Seen Saturday.

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