Chicago likes its Cash. Johnny Cash, that is.
Not only is the late lamented singer-songwriter a major figure in the long-running “Million Dollar Dollar Quartet, ” but his voice and spirit were at the heart of James Kudelka’s “The Man in Black, ” danced earlier this season by the Joffrey Ballet.
And now, with “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, ” a rousing revue at Mercury Theater Chicago, the man in black is the subject of a full-fledged, quasi-biographical show packed with 30 songs, all performed by a rip-roaring, multi-talented cast of seven big personalities who can sing up a storm, play a slew of instruments, and conjure the various times and places in the life of this man who so memorably proclaimed he had been everywhere.
‘RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH’
When: Through Aug. 30
Where: Mercury Theater Chicago,
3745 N. Southport
Info: (773) 325-1700;
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission
The show, a nonstop explosion of music conceived by William Meade, created by Richard Maltby, Jr. (the force behind “Ain’t Misbehavin'”), and featuring the exuberant orchestrations of Steven Bishop and Jeff Lisenby, is a “revised and refined” version of the same production staged at Munster-based Theatre at the Center last year.
Zestily staged by Brian Russell, with Malcolm Ruhl as master musical director (and additional material by pianist/actor Austin Cook, who has joined the sensational “original cast”), “Ring of Fire” begins in 1932, when Cash and his close-knit family took up residence on a cotton farm in Arkansas and endured two major floods, and Cash mourned the deaths of both a beloved brother and his mother. The story moves on all the way to his death in 2003, following Cash as he launches his career, makes it to the Grand Ole Opry, meets and marries June Carter, hits the road again and again, gets caught up in a bad drug habit, performs for prisoners, speaks out for the disenfranchised, and more.
Cash, with his mix of romanticism and rebelliousness, his complex devotion to God, and that seductive bass-baritone voice that embraced the sounds of country, gospel, folk, rock and blues, is played primarily by two actor-singer-musicians who suggest the man’s dual qualities — Michael Monroe Goodman (who ideally suggests the rustic side of Cash, and plays electric and acoustic guitars, banjo and mandolin), and Kent M. Lewis (as a more sleekly polished Cash, on acoustic guitar). And both Goodman and Lewis uncannily capture the unique timbre and allure of Cash’s voice.
Supplying the virtuosic pipes and winking sex appeal is Cory Goodrich (on acoustic guitar and autoharp), who not only captures Cash’s warmly playful mother and the sassy June Carter, but happily takes on some of Cash’s most familiar songs herself. Goodrich brings down the house with a mind-boggling, speed-of-light rendition of “I’ve Been Everywhere, ” with diction and phrasing so perfect it sounds electronically engineered. ( It is real.) And she is deeply touching in her rendering of “I Still Miss Someone.”
Backing these three throughout, with whimsy and musical heat, are Ruhl (on bass fiddle, and electric, acoustic and resonator guitars, who also gives a spot-on rendering of the blackly comic “Delia’s Gone”), Greg Hirte (the terrific fiddler who made his mark last season in “Hank Williams: Lost Highway, ”and also is at home on mandolin and guitars), and Billy Shaffer, a power drummer-percussionist whose face “American Gothic” painter Grant Wood would have loved.
All the great songs are here: “Cry! Cry! Cry!, ” “Jackson, ” “Going to Memphis, ” “Folsom Prison Blues, ” “I Walk the Line” and the fiercely funny father-son saga, “A Boy Named Sue.” But the hymns and love songs, each given a nuanced, gorgeously harmonic performance, also seduce. And Barry G. Funderburg’s sound design is impeccable.
Angela Miller’s set, anchored by the Grace Station railroad stop, and framed by train tracks and an open field, easily morphs for various other locations, and Brenda Winstead’s costumes are an ideal mix of homespun and flashy Opry style.
All in all, a show ablaze with fire and unmitigated fun. Let that train blow the whistle.
Hedy Weiss has been Theater and Dance Critic of the Chicago Sun-Times since 1984, reporting on local, national and international productions, as well as a wide range of other subjects including art and architecture, books, travel and international affairs.