PLAYBILL AT OPENING NIGHT: Ring of Fire : A Night at the Opry

Opening Night   PLAYBILL AT OPENING NIGHT: Ring of Fire : A Night at the Opry It could have been the strong influx of Nashville influence, but the first-nighters at Ring of Fire March 12 stomped and hollered and clapped and yelled till the cast of 14, every manjack of them, returned to the Barrymore stage in various states of dishabille for one last bow—and even then they didn’t stop until the show’s creator-director, Richard Maltby, Jr. , was hoisted out of the audience over the footlights and placed centerstage.
Richard Maltby, Jr.; Lari White; Jarrod Emick; Rosanne Cash; Carlene Carter; John Carter Cash; Jason Edwards; Cass Morgan & David M. Lutken; Harry Smith; Jane Seymour; Jennifer Love Hewitt; Larry Gatlin.
Richard Maltby, Jr.; Lari White; Jarrod Emick; Rosanne Cash; Carlene Carter; John Carter Cash; Jason Edwards; Cass Morgan & David M. Lutken; Harry Smith; Jane Seymour; Jennifer Love Hewitt; Larry Gatlin. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Such extravagantly jubilant behavior is done all the time uptown at The Met by the snooty set, but Broadway rarely has such nights. Titanic was one. Another was the time Gwen Verdon stopped Can-Can cold with her Adam and Eve ballet gyrations and had to brought back on stage—in a towel, yet!—before the audience would let the show go on.

“It was nice,” conceded Maltby a few hours later, by then all calm and cucumber-cool, at the after-party in the eighth-floor Broadway Lounge of the Marriott Marquis. “Gerry Schoenfeld says he’d never seen an opening night like this, ever—and Gerry Schoenfeld has seen a few opening nights. Calling the whole cast back after they were already in their dressing rooms, undressing—that is something that doesn’t happen very often, I’ll tell ya.”

Two-time Grammy-winning gospel singer Lari White , a Broadway virgin, was flabbergasted by the response. “My favorite part of the evening? It was when I was naked in the dressing room after the first curtain call, and I heard the announcement we needed to get back on stage. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because they’re still applauding and won’t stop.’ I thought, ‘Wow! They really did like it.’ So I got dressed in two seconds and ran back out. It was a fabulous night, very special.” It’ll be hard to top her first night on Broadway.

Damn Yankees! Tony winner Jarrod Emick arrived back on stage open-shirted, with belt-buckle jangling. “It’s such a privilege to do this show,” he said later. “When I found out Richard was doing this, I called him twice and auditioned three times. I’ve been with it since the start. There was no way I was going to let it go. It’s in my bones. This music means so much to me, so much to my dad. I can’t wait for him to get here to see it. That’s all we had—Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Johnny Mathis —all we listened to. I have such respect for Cash’s music and everybody in the cast I get a chance to do it with.”

Continuing the strong jaw-line of the macho cast was Jeb Brown . (His name, by the way, comes from his initials—John Emerson Brown—and not the Bible.) Brown and White blend nicely into a series of sexy, romantic duets, but his favorite moment plays on another color: “I love doing ‘Man in Black,’ because it’s a song that a lot of people know, but I don’t think they’ve really heard the words recently. They were written in 1971, during Vietnam, and here we are again in so many ways. It has potency and resonance. “What we’re doing is theatricalizing the music, which is not hard to do because Cash wrote story songs so often. Occasionally, we make a song into a conversation, but mostly we just tell the story and then put it on its feet. It’s surprising how easily it translates.”

He conceded there seemed to be a lot of Southern-fried hospitality out there on opening night. “We’ve been playing to very fantastic houses for a while now, but there was a different flavor out there tonight. It was a Nashville flavor. There was a sense we were performing for the royal family of Nashville. It was fascinating to hear the material go out there and be received in a slightly different way. It wasn’t bigger or lesser—just different.”

Brown wasn’t delusional. Honored guests at the opening included the recording-star daughters of Johnny Cash (Rosanne Cash ) and June Carter (Carlene Carter ) and their son, John Carter Cash . Everyone should have the month of Sundays these three have just had: Last Sunday, Reese Witherspoon picked up an Oscar for her portrayal of June in Walk the Line ; this Sunday, a song she wrote with Merle Kilgore 43 years ago for Cash became the title tune of a Broadway musical celebrating the songs Cash sang as well as the country folks he sang to. Maltby created it as a kind of musical American cavalcade.

Young Cash, seconding Hank Williams Jr.’s motion that the scions of country-music icons always come in the large economy size, was pleased as all-get-out with the show. “Definitely so,” he said, “and, most of all, I believe my parents would have been very happy to hear the crowd’s reaction and see the way the songs were portrayed. The performances were done with such heartfelt compassion. It’s a unique show, something my parents would be proud of, something that’ll bring joy to audiences for a long time.”

Another lantern-jaw chawing on Cash’s songs, Jason Edwards , felt at times he was preaching to the converted. “It was kind of an out-of-body experience at the beginning, y’know. It wasn’t like going out there and doing the show. It was a thrill! What a great audience! We feel really blessed. Hopefully Johnny Cash and June are smiling on us. That’s what it was all about for me, just trying to be honest and entertain this crowd.”

A quick scan of the Playbill bios gives the impression that the cast was recruited from three grassroots shows: Pump Boys and Dinettes , Frank Wildhorn’s The Civil War and Comden & Green & Coleman’s The Will Rogers Follies . Indeed, a founder—if not the mother of Pump Boys —was present and accounted for on opening night: Cass Morgan , bouncing back radiantly from her recent surgery. “I am perfectly healthy,” she beamed. “I have a clean bill of health. I recuperated very fast. It was scary there for a while, but I’m perfectly fine now. I feel just great. In fact, I feel better than I’ve felt in a long, long time.”

The audience’s welcome was a tonic. “Were you out there tonight? It was so much fun. The audience was so joyful and with us. It felt like we were all part of the same thing.”

Another authentic country touch was a tall drink of Bolgeresque water named David M. Lutken , late of The Will Rogers Follies, The Civil War and Woody Guthrie’s American Song . He and Randy Redd fall somewhere between the actors and the band on stage, “a great spot to be in in this particular show,” he insisted. “There are 38 songs in the show, and Randy and I are really responsible for about four of ‘em, and then we just get to play the other 34.” (He plays six instruments.) “Since I was in this show from the very beginning at the workshops, I sorta got to write my own ticket because it’s my kind of music. Cash did rockabilly and country music, but he also did a lot of traditional American music, and that’s kinda where I come in—to help with that aspect of the thing.”

You couldn’t come up with a more eclectic cross-section of first-nighters, certainly. In the audience and at the party: CBS Newsman Harry Smith , mini-series diva Jane Seymour (who became friendly with the Cash family when her husband, James Keach , produced Walk the Line ), Vincent Pastore (presumably establishing a very public alibi while Tony Soprano gets whacked on HBO), Max von Essen (bracing to play Patrick Dennis to Christine Baranski ’s Mame next month at the Kennedy Center), Liz Larsen (who dubbed Emick “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo.” in Damn Yankees! ), celebrity chef Mario Battali and Jennifer Love Hewitt , whose mom was one of the show’s investors. Larry Gatlin , who backed up Cash as one of The Tennessee Three, attended with a 30-year-old hour-gauge: his son, Joshua Cash Gatlin . “John and June were the first two people at the hospital when he got born.” (The three were writing songs for a religious musical at the time, called Gospel Road .) Gatlin hasn’t been back to Broadway since he replaced Mac Davis in The Will Rogers Follies , but he’s not averse to the idea. “When people pay me, I go work. I’m a working man. I’m singing with my brothers on the road, and I’m writing a musical of my own about Quannah Parker, the last Comanche chief.

“I had a wonderful time, and so did John and June. They were looking on from on high.”

It was the perfect party for some penny-pinching producer to post a Cash bar, but none did. It was an evening of dear hearts and generous people. And the spirits flowed free . . .

The cast gives their opening night curtain call.
The cast gives their opening night curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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