Morgan Morse, Katie Barton, Ben Hope and Eric Scott Anthony in Stages Repertory Theatre’s production of Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash.

Image: Os Galindo

Biography on the stage is a fascinating enterprise, and all the better when the subject is a musical legend. I should say “subjects”—because this Johnny Cash musical shares the stage with his wife and fellow country music legend, June Carter Cash. They were a powerful duo, and this show brings their musical origins, romance, and marriage to the stage in a compelling and memorable way. I loved this show from top to bottom, from the minimalist set with instruments conveniently at the ready, to the superlative musical performances of songs I thought I knew—but was able to appreciate in a new way.

Real-life husband and wife Ben Hope and Katie Barton (who also directs) are completely believable as Johnny and June. They track his humble origins in Arkansas, marred by the tragic death of his brother, alongside her upbringing as country royalty in the Carter family. This production is a model of efficiency in covering important milestones in their family, from June’s early days singing advertorial jingles for Martha White flour and hamming it up as a comedienne, to Johnny’s troubles with pills and fame. You realize how this is a love story for the ages, even if there were bumps in the road. 

But this show has a formidable ensemble with excellent singing and instrumental chops, and I marveled at the versatility of these performers playing multiple roles and various instruments. Marcy McGuigan can play a saddened mother of Johnny and then quickly move into comedic gold singing “While I’ve Got it on My Mind” with the superlative Eric Scott Anthony. Newcomer Morgan Morse is also wonderful, and his solo is one of the highlights of the show. What can I say? This show is perfectly cast, and I really wanted them to keep on singing long after the standing ovation and their encore performance of “I’ve Been Everywhere.” 

Ben Hope’s performance does not sugarcoat Cash’s life, nor should it. But it is also filled with humor and verve, and he has a wonderful voice that I really sort of prefer to Cash’s, even though it is pretty darn close. He has the mannerisms down, and I loved that movie Walk the Line, with Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix, so this was a wonderful accompaniment to that film that goes farther in time. The catchy “Straight A’s in Love” is fun and shows a lighter side of Cash. But the best moments are the ones in which you realize the huge range that Cash really had—from early rockabilly songs to gospel to ballad to country. It's all there in his formidable repertoire. 

Katie Barton as June Carter Cash is fantastic—not only does she have her quirky sense of humor down, she knocks it out of the park with her duets of “Jackson” and “All Over Again” with Hope. I love watching her on stage and she captures the pathos of a spouse dealing with Johnny’s considerable struggles, especially with drugs. Even more, I learned that “Ring of Fire,” one of Johnny Cash’s biggest hits, was actually written by June.

And while those hits were outstanding ( “Folsom City Blues” and “I Walk the Line”), I also was struck by the songs such as “Man in Black” and the social and spiritual activism embedded in many of the songs sung by this charismatic musical duo—both apart and together. “Jackson” is always a hit, and I love it too, but for me the highlight of this show was the pre-intermission rendition of “Ring of Fire.” I loved every minute. 

Which brings me to a promise: Even if country music is not your thing, you'll love this musical anyway.

Thru Sept. 2. Tickets from $25. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy. 713-527-0123. More info and tickets at stagestheatre.com.

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