Recently I had the privilege of attending a performance of, “Ring of Fire”, which is currently playing at the Mercury Theater Chicago. This tribute to Johnny Cash takes the audience on a virtual ‘musical train ride’ through Cash’s fascinating life (1932-2003).
The opening scene is metaphorically significant, as we find ourselves at, “Grace Station”, certainly depicting Cash’s devout Christian faith and the recurring themes in his life about trains, journey, hardship, and endurance. Adorning the back wall of the station we see various instruments: guitars, mandolins, while an upright bass, drums, and other instruments take center stage, all waiting to become part of Johnny Cash’s story. Here’s a photo of the scene prior to the start of the performance:
You can see from the above photo there is a set of train-tracks to the left; I found this to be a perfect inclusion to the stage set, as it kept me thinking about Cash’s long and winding life; sometimes smooth, at other times bumpy and rough.
Grace Station reminded me of a community gathering spot, where tall tales are told, accompanied by a musical blending of each person’s ‘sound’, creating a synergistic environment. That is exactly what happened on stage as the ‘community’ provided phenomenal renditions of 30 powerful Johnny Cash songs. Interwoven into his life’s journey, there was a sense of getting to know Johnny Cash through the lyrics and melody of his music. Seven extremely talented musicians allow us to accompany them on Cash’s meaningful sojourn starting with his humble, early life on the family cotton farm in Arkansas, which included renditions of, “Country Boy”, “Five Feet High”, and, “Daddy Sang Bass”. Accompaniment by Malcolm Ruhl, Austin Cook, Greg Hirte, and Billy Shaffer provided the audience with fervor as each note draws you into the heart-felt world of Johnny Cash.
There is a brilliant interplay between the depiction of Johnny Cash in his younger years (played by the extremely talented Michael Monroe Goodman) and Cash in his older years (an amazing performance by Kent Lewis). As the audience is taken through Cash’s journey, Lewis (as the older Cash) provides a segue through dialogue of some of the deep and thought-provoking trials and tribulations he endured as a young man. This is seamlessly followed by a Cash song performed by Goodman (as the younger Cash).
As the wandering of the decades of Cash’s life continues, Kent Lewis also gives the audience a narrative of experiences and challenges Johnny faced later in his life, followed by a song illustrating the time period.
Adding extra layers to the performance is the outstanding Cory Goodrich who plays Cash’s wife, June Carter-Cash.
The, “Grand Ole Opry” in Memphis is not only where June and Johnny met, but performed together on many occasions. Goodrich gave a tremendously energetic and electric performance of Cash’s song, “I’ve Been Everywhere”. If you’ve never heard this song, it has an exceptionally quick beat which Goodrich flawlessly executes without, well, missing a ‘beat’!
Johnny Cash always wore black clothing. I hadn’t given this much thought until I heard Lewis with his soulful voice sing, “Man In Black”. Here are a few lines to give you an idea as to why Cash wore black:
“I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.”
Other Cash hits performed to perfection include: “Ring of Fire”, Folsom Prison Blues”, “If I Were a Carpenter”, and “I Walk the Line”.
This performance is directed by Brian Russell and the musical director (and performer) is Malcolm Ruhl. I utterly loved every single minute of the entire musical. Having never been a Johnny Cash fan, I honestly had no idea what was in store. However, I realized quite quickly that I was hooked. The entire cast is in sync; not only is the music incredible, but the feelings and emotions exuded by the performers allow the audience to truly gain a new and interesting perspective into the life and experiences of Johnny Cash. I do not think this is something that can be gained by anything less than the collective charisma and standout performances of every single person on the stage. THAT is how much I loved this musical! Whether you are a Johnny Cash fan or not, this is by far one of the best musicals I have seen in a long time.
If you would like to hear/see what I am talking about, “Ring of Fire” is playing at the Mercury Theater Chicago until August 30th: http://mercurytheaterchicago.com/
In fact, I want to see it again!! Great job, Mercury Theater Chicago!! You never disappoint!
Special thanks to Allison Weber for the photos included in this post (I took the, “Grace Station” photo which you probably noticed, as the quality isn’t nearly as good as the Mercury’s photos)!