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Ring of fire

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(Studio Arena Theater, Buffalo; 600 seats; $53 top)

A Studio Arena presentation of "The Johnny Cash Musical Show" in two acts. Created by Richard Maltby Jr. and William Meade. Directed by Richard Maltby Jr. Set, Neil Patel; projections, Michael Clark; costumes, David D. Woolard; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Peter Fitzgerald & Carl Casella; musical direction, Jeff Lisenby; choreography, Lisa Shriver. Reviewed Sept. 8, 2005. Opened, Sept. 9. Running time: 2 HOURS 20 MIN.

With: Eric Anthony, Jeb Brown, Laurie Canaan, Jason Edwards, Jarrod Emick, Dan Immel, Ron Krasinksi, Jeff Lisenby, David M. Lutken, Beth Malone, Cass Morgan, Brent Moyer, Randy Redd, Lari White

Surprise, everybody! The jukebox musical is alive and well, thanks to some fresh thinking from the man who virtually invented the form nearly 30 years ago --- Richard Maltby Jr. "Ring of Fire" (in Buffalo on the initial stop of its pre-Broadway tour) is being called the Johnny Cash musical show and at first glance, it may seem to be light years apart from Maltby's classic 1978 Fats Waller revue, "Ain't Misbehavin'." But on closer examination, it shares many of the admirable traits of its predecessor.

What Maltby has done once again is to let the songs and the spirit of a larger-than-life artist infuse an entire evening, creating an impressionistic picture of the way of life in which the star and his music flourished.

If you've had enough of pop song catalogs either treated as mini-biographies, mindless song-and-dance collections, or the hooks on which a made-to-order book can be hung, then relax. Maltby does none of those things.

He takes three dozen songs that Cash performed during his career and uses them as a loose-limbed exploration of that classic American struggle: urban vs., rural. We get to see both lifestyles, with their pluses and minuses, as we follow three men (or three aspects of one man) on his journey between them.

No attempt is made to say that anybody "is" Johnny Cash and no one tries to imitate his singing style. But the three leading men (Jason Edwards, Jarrod Emick and Jeb Brown) present character traits that share many similarities with Cash: dirt-poor childhood, rise to country music fame, a time of the skids and eventual redemption.

None of this is spelled out too literally; the audience is allowed to fit the pieces together as it chooses. For the record, the packed audience members at the final preview ate it up with a spoon, laughing and cheering throughout and leaping to their feet as soon as the last number ended in a truly spontaneous ovation.

Part of Maltby's savvy is that he just doesn't offer up the Cash hits, although "A Boy Named Sue," "I Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues" and other favorites are present.

He begins by letting us know that surprises are going to be the name of the game when --- instead of a snappy opening number --- we start with the searing "Hurt" by Trent Reznor, which Cash covered late in his career.

After that, the well-known titles alternate with the ones that only diehard Cash fans have heard of and there's some fine comedy to be found in obscure numbers like "Flushed" and "Straight A's in Love."

But aside from content, Maltby shows his skill in the staging of the show, giving it a look quite unlike any other revue.

The 14-member cast includes an eight-piece orchestra, but all the musicians are performers in their own right and they weave in and out of the action as much as the soloists do, providing a constant source of variety.

The Act II opener, "I've Been Anywhere" keeps expanding into a joyous celebration, at the end of which all 14 of the cast are spread across the stage, each one playing the guitar.

The scenery by Neil Patel consists primarily of two large LED screens on which images designed by Michael Clark are projected. Sometimes they degenerate into mere Kodak moment prettiness, but more often, they take us through a series of farms, highways, bars, truckstops and prisons with a breath-taking beauty and grace.

With the vivid lighting of Ken Billington for support, Maltby uses these movable LED screens to keep the stage picture changing in appropriate ways.

The six featured soloists mostly make solid impressions, with the men scoring the best. Jason Edwards nails the sadder-but-wiser songs, Jarrod Emick throbs through the sensitive, hurtin' ones, and Jeb Brown nearly steals the show several times with his hard-edged sensual rendition of numbers like "Man in Black" and "Sunday Morning, Coming Down."

On the distaff side, Cass Morgan dispenses lots of maternal warmth and Lari White has real country sass. Only Beth Malone seems too generic and musical theater in her style.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive impression the show leaves, there are some issues to be addressed here and during the next stop at the Curran Theater in San Francisco.

Too many numbers finish without a satisfactory "button," which may be fine in Nashville, but lack some of the kick needed for the Broadway stage. Without destroying the joyous purity of the country sound the company produces, there has to be a way to kick it up a notch.

There's also a stretch midway through Act I where the normally clear focus gets fuzzy for a while and you're not sure where the journey's taking you.

And finally, the first act could use a much stronger ending. Right now, it concludes with a trio of he-she numbers for Emick and Malone that look like they fell out of an old episode of "Donny and Marie" --- a little bit country and a little bit rock 'n' roll.

Something for the whole company with more thematic resonance is needed at that point to carry the crowd happily into the intermission.

But even as it plays right now, "Ring of Fire" is hot. It just needs some careful tending to really burst into flame.

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