Ring of Fire at the Milwaukee Rep

5 Reasons to See the Rep’s Fiery Johnny Cash Tribute

We can’t get ‘Ring of Fire’ out of our heads, and we aren’t mad about it.

When the Milwaukee Repertory Theater originally staged Ring of Fire, a jukebox musical that pays homage to the immortal Man in Black, in 2013, tickets soon sold out. So Artistic Director Mark Clements and the rest of the Rep’s creative team are bringing it back for another run, from now through May 26.

Here are five reasons you might want to buy tickets before it sells out a second time:

Ring of Fire at the Milwaukee Rep
From left to right: Corbin Mayer, James David Larson, Paul Wyatt,
Kent M. Lewis, Alex Keiper; photo by Michael Brosilow

1) See it because it’s chock full of Johnny Cash songs, duh.

You’d be hard-pressed to pick a more universally beloved musician than Johnny Cash. His appeal transcends generations and genres.

And unlike other superstar musicians who’ve been at the center of media firestorms in recent months (R. Kelly, Michael Jackson), Cash did his best to lead a life he could be proud of – he saw himself as an advocate for the poor and downtrodden, and he used his popularity as a platform for his activism. He also spoke openly of his relationship and substance-abuse struggles.

On top of that, his songwriting style – straightforward, with clear lyrics and a strong narrative bent – lends itself to a theatrical retelling.

2) The actors bring some real star power to their roles.

The five-person cast is anchored by Kent M. Lewis, who deftly channels a mid-career Johnny Cash – the way he talked, the way he sang, the way he worked a crowd – and has an impressive roster of national tours under his belt, including first-run productions of Billy Elliot and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Alexis Keiper, a golden-throated stand-in for June Carter Cash, easily holds her own against him too.

3) You can enjoy dinner, and drinks, with the show.

Ring of Fire takes place in the Rep’s intimate Stackner Cabaret. That means, in addition to getting a better view of all the actors, you can also order from the Cabaret’s full-service menu, which includes a cocktail list customized to the show (with items like “A Drink Named Sue”). The menu offerings and the set decorations help impart a casual, Southern-Fried vibe reminiscent of the honky tonks where Cash played early in his career.  

4) You’ll get a chance to hear some of Cash’s deeper cuts.

The show’s creators made sure to scatter all of the country star’s greatest hits (“Cry, Cry, Cry”; “Big River”; “Ring of Fire”; “Folsom Prison Blues”; “I Walk the Line”) throughout the 32-song lineup, ensuring that audience members never have to wait more than a few minutes for the next toe-tapper. But they also made room for lesser-known but quietly compelling works like “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Flesh and Blood.” And they included forays into gospel territory (“Far Side Banks of Jordan”) and some of his more humorous numbers (“Egg Suckin’ Dog”) too.

5) You’ll get to hear some of your favorite songs live, in an intimate setting.

You could listen to Johnny Cash on Spotify all day (and we wouldn’t blame you for doing exactly that). But a recording, no matter how good, isn’t ever really a substitute for a live rendition of a song. And it’s particularly thrilling to see the cast members pick up and play instrument after instrument throughout the night, passing guitars and banjos around amongst themselves while delivering stirring renditions of songs within a few feet of the audience.   

Go See It: Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash at the Milwaukee Rep, Stackner Cabaret; March 22-May 26



Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.