On Broadway, as in life, it sometimes seems like one step forward and two steps backward. Just when you think that the jukebox musical — a compilation of pre-composed reusable songs — is maturing (“Jersey Boys” is the most recent case in point), along comes another plot-less and pointless celebration of a renowned American musical artist. As an entertainer and as a composer of songs that spanned rock and roll, blues, rockabilly, country folk, and gospel from 1955 to his death in 2003, Johnny Cash had an exciting and turbulent life that has inspired biographical consideration. The recently lauded film, “Walk the Line,” told the story of his early life. “Ring of Fire” is the brainchild of creator/director Richard Maltby Jr., who is credited with starting the jukebox genre in 1978 with “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” in which the songs — not the story — of Fats Waller propelled the entertainment.
Good intentions are seen along the way, as 37 songs that Cash either composed or performed are framed to reveal the lives, times, and places he knew. We follow a trail of distinctly unrelated musical vignettes that ultimately leads us nowhere, except eventually to the street outside. Slightly reminiscent of the recent flop musical, “Lennon,” in which the title character was conceptualized through numerous performers, the different stages of Cash’s life is inferred by three generations of men, possibly but not necessarily from the same family, but most likely from the same place, the heartland of America. The 20-something Jarrod Emick, the 40-something Jeb Brown, and the 60-something Jason Edwards make no attempt to personify Cash but rather project the home-spun motivations, the struggles and the conflicts that helped to define his life, most notably his empowering inclination toward religiosity. Emick is every inch the charismatic cowboy as he struts and poses with youthful vigor. And Brown and Edwards resonate gingerly with the prerequisite nod to their character’s state of maturity.
Song book collections have a way of backfiring, no matter how familiar, if they appear isolated emotionally from the whole and are by their nature and design simplistic in their themes. If none of the songs build dramatically on what we are seeing, and are not intended to, many of them do afford the performers a reasonably supportive showcase. Of course, there are women implemented into the lives of the men, mostly as spouses. 20-something Beth Malone and 40-something Lari White are strident for the sake of impact, leaving 60-something Cass Morgan to reflect the charm of the golden years.
The eight members of the onstage band provide the most bracing moments in the show, as they not only offer terrific instrumental backup but also become part of the singing and dancing ensemble. The choreography, most of it variations on line-dancing, is credited to Lisa Shriver. Although the banjo, mandolin, keyboard, accordion, cornet, Dobro, and evoharp are part of the instrumental mix, it is the guitar that dominates. In one of the revue’s more rousing numbers, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” the eight musicians and six principals line up across the stage each strumming an acoustic guitar.
It can’t be said that the song selections don’t fit a variety of moods. Edwards is full of remorse singing “Hurt;” “There You Go” finds Malone dismayed by Emick’s fickle heart; “While I’ve Got It on My Mind” inspires hanky panky from Brown and White; and the flood waters prompts “Five Feet High and Rising” by the principals. Apres le deluge, a good crop appears and a reason to sing “Look at Them Beans.” A medley at the Grand Ole Opry provides some amusement when Morgan, dressed in a silly frock, bellows out “Flushed (from the Bathroom of Your Heart).”
We get the message that prison and life on a chain gang is hell but not without its comical ironies with “Delia’s Gone,” “Austin Prison,” “Orleans Parish Prison,” and “Folsom Prison Blues. Sung with concerted reference are the faith-based songs — “Angel Band,” “Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan, and “Why Me.” These will undoubted please those so inclined. Show-stoppers and standout numbers may be in short supply, but not the number of times that you may wonder what is the point of all this wandering about in Cash-land. The revue is indebted to the various projections, often quite beautiful, designed by Neil Patel and well lighted by Ken Billington. These transport us to farms and farmhouses, pastoral vistas, bars, on-the-highways and by-ways, Folsom Prison, and the Grand Ole Opry. In the end, we are indebted to Brown who sings “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” all about getting up feeling bad with a hangover. Unlike anything else in the show, it’s perfectly understandable. **
“Ring of Fire,” Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street. $101.25 to $86.25. 212-239-6200.