Tuesday, May 05, 2015

'Ring of Fire' Has Me From "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash" -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash
Mercury Theater, Chicago
(presented in collaboration with
Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN)
Thru June 28

If only my parents knew on October 2, 1981 what I know now, they could've taken me to see Johnny Cash at the (now defunct) Mill Run Theater just 10 minutes from our home.

Though I would like to think the show was sold out. 

And if I didn't require Rick Rubin, the series of American Recordings, Johnny's remarkable rendition of "Hurt" and other rock covers near the end of his life to make me far more a Cash fan over the past 13 years than during any preceding, I theoretically could have seen one of music's greatest legends at the House of Blues in the late-1990s.

Alas I didn't, and with nothing but high regard for the talented performers presently gracing the Mercury Theater stage, I don't consider seeing the musical production, Ring of Fire, a comparable substitute. 

Which isn't to say it isn't entertaining and worthwhile.

Especially if you avail yourself--as I did--of discount tickets through Goldstar or HotTix, you can hear several great songs, enjoy particularly fine performances and injest a bit of biography for rather little Cash.

Sure, nobody--in the show or perhaps ever--sings quite like Johnny, nor quite exudes the gravitas of the real Man in Black, but the music is impressively played by the actors onstage, including Kent M. Lewis and Michael Monroe Goodman, who tag team nicely in vocalizing the central character.

Though it appears those involved in the show's development--including Theatre at the Center in Munster, where this production ran early last year--have reworked Ring of Fire to be more biographical than the supposedly interpretive incarnation that lasted just a month on Broadway in 2006, it is much more a fine showcase of songs than it is a compelling character study.

But having seen numerous stage shows created around the songbooks of musical pioneers--Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams Jr., Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Million Dollar Quartet--I recognize the risk of stemming the built-in entertainment value by getting bogged down in storytelling.

I think Jersey Boys truly succeeds as a legitimate musical because while using Four Seasons' songs ostensibly to trace their career arc, that show effectively expounds--if metaphorically--on more universal matters: America in the '50s-'60s, friendship, love, loss and much else.

But other jukebox musicals have become ensnared in too much "book," slowing down the festivities for those who have come predominantly to snap, tap and clap along.

So while I can't extol Ring of Fire as sensational musical theater, with its narrative skeletal familiar to anyone who arrives with a cursory sense of Johnny Cash--perhaps through the Walk the Line film--the source material doesn't get in the way of itself...or a thoroughly enjoyable 2 hours of entertainment.

Along with Lewis and Monroe, the always stellar Cory Goodrich--who kindly complimented my CASH t-shirt at a restaurant down the block before the show--is outstanding here as June Carter Cash and other women in Johnny's life.

Her staccato blitz through "I've Been Everywhere" is an absolute delight, as are poignant solo takes on "I Still Miss Someone" and "All Over Again."

The show does a good job in varying how Cash's songs--some very famous, some not--are sung, whether by Lewis, Monroe, one or the other with Goodrich, as a group rendition, etc.

To perform the entirety of Johnny Cash's catalog--which continues to grow well after his death in 2003--would likely consume a full week or more, but most of the tunes you'd expect to be included are, with Goodman helming "Cry, Cry, Cry," Lewis tackling the title song, a nice Goodman/Goodrich pairing on "Jackson" and Lewis & Goodrich dueting on "I Walk the Line."

Ring of Fire's musical director, Malcolm Ruhl--who like Greg Hirte and Austin Cook rotates impressively through various instruments onstage; Billy Shaffer is the drummer--even delivers an affecting lead vocal on Delia's Gone.

I would have liked a late-show inclusion of "Hurt," if only because of how powerful Cash's take on Trent Reznor's lyrics--"What have I become?"; "I remember everything"; "Everyone I know goes away in the end"--and Mark Romanek's brilliant music video had been in evoking many of the timeline themes (struggle, success, hard times, broken relationships, addiction, love, loyalty) that are referenced in Ring of Fire's sparse dialogue.

But from an effective mash-up of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"/"Daddy Played Bass" to "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "A Boy Named Sue," nothing that is performed doesn't belong, nor is less than satisfying.

My friend Dave, who accompanied me much more as a fan of Cash's music than of musical theater, was perhaps even more enamored than I.

In the pantheon of all that can be viewed on Chicago area stages, I won't quite call Ring of Fire "must-see," but this production does definite justice to the legend of Johnny Cash.

And for that it deserves great credit.


Now for the money shot:

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