As summer slowly wanes, the hills are once again alive (not to mention the coast) with the sound of fondly remembered music.

After a July opening, “Escape to Margaritaville,” featuring the songs of Jimmy Buffett, is still on at the Ogunquit Playhouse. And the music of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons will arrive in September when Maine State Music Theatre opens a production of “Jersey Boys” in Westbrook. But August brings us an opportunity to immerse ourselves in memories of a unique master.

Conceived by William Meade and created by Richard Maltby, Jr., “Ring of Fire” is a musical with a bit of biography included that is designed to celebrate the world of the legendary Johnny Cash (1932-2003). The Portland Stage/MSMT co-production offers a whole lot of music along with hints of insight into what made Cash so special.  The song-filled show, full of fine onstage musicianship, doesn’t go dramatically deep but nonetheless makes for a fun, toe-tapping two-hours at the theater.

Through vocal discipline and a strong desire to entertain, Maine native Scott Moreau has fashioned a career out of his ability to evoke the memory of, while not seeking to directly impersonate, Cash in such past productions as “Million Dollar Quartet.”  Now, in “Ring of Fire,” he and four other actor/musicians in multiple roles, within a multi-level scenic design by Ben Hope and Anita Stewart, take us back to a time when a new sort of country music was reaching mass audiences.

The Arkansan’s music came out a gospel tradition and the resonance of deeply held beliefs informed the style and substance of Cash’s work. Though he ranged into secular subject matter as he embraced the sounds he encountered in Memphis and Nashville, he still held on to a bit of the poor, hymn-singing country boy within.

A richly harmonious ensemble rendition of “Far Side of Jordan,” backed by guitar, banjo and mandolin, is part of an early medley that sets the foundation upon which such classics as “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line” were built.


Moreau brings out some of the essential rumble within the singer’s vocals as he leans into the artist’s growth. A spotlit take on “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” gives him, alone with his guitar, a moment to suggest some of the great singer’s troubles while further personalizing his own highly charismatic performance.

Elizabeth Nestlerode as June Carter and Scott Moreau as Johnny Cash in “Ring of Fire.”

As the music gets more electric, with fine, crackling guitar work from Ben Hope and Morgan Morse, Elizabeth Nestlerode enters the picture as June Carter, already a country music legend and the future Mrs. Cash. Nestlerode’s perky portrayal contrasts with the darker romanticism of Moreau’s Cash as their duets both heat up on “Jackson” and reveal a gentler side on “If I Were a Carpenter.”

Comic relief comes from Katie Barton (who co-directed the production with Hope and designed the period costumes) on “Egg Suckin’ Dog.” Hope scores with his mock lament “Delia’s Gone.” Morse, oddly, is assigned the vocal on “Folsom Prison Blues” but carries it off with elan. All the supporting players amaze on multiple instruments as well as offering solid, countrified vocals.

The show sticks mostly with early to mid-career Cash tunes, finishing strong with such hits as “Man in Black” and “A Boy Named Sue.” But an opening night finale of the late hit “I’ve Been Everywhere” best summed up the man’s long journey into the heart of America.

 Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.