By Barry Reszel
Envision a summertime reunion and the good fortune of being seated at the picnic table with all the cool cousins, classmates or friends. Immediately, all are able to shed the months or years of separation (Facebook has helped) and pick up where the last live conversations ended.
That’s what’s going on at Mercury Theater Chicago in its current production, Ring of Fire—the Music of Johnny Cash.
The critically acclaimed Johnny Cash concert/biopic that thrilled Munster, IN audiences February-March 2014 at Theatre at the Center is remounted at Chicago’s intimate Mercury with the two organizations co-producing.
If there’s a single take-away from this re-staging compared to its 2014 predecessor, it’s one of familiarity, familiality and intimacy. When Cash performed at the Grand Ole Opry, beginning in 1956 until he was banned in 1965 for breaking the floor lights in a drunken stupor, he did so at the old Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville rather than the massive, “new” Grand Ole Opry House opened in 1974 on the city’s outskirts. Maybe that’s why it somehow just feels right to see this show in the exposed brick gem that is the 1912-built Mercury Theater Chicago.
So too, the family, these players, typical of most reunions, is nearly all (though not 100%) the same. So while welcoming the new and lamenting the missing, this cast exudes a sense of calm, security, true familiarity performing multiple roles and instruments. It both lightens the mood and tightens the music; indeed opening night was the most comfortable production premiere imaginable.
Unbelievably gifted keyboard player Austin Cook married into this Cash family for the run, replacing equally talented William Underwood who’s music directing TATC’s production of Big Fish.
But the rest of Director Brian Russell‘s stellar cast is intact. Kent Lewis as Cash’s on-stage autobiographer along with “Young Johnny” Michael Monroe Goodman provide the sights and sounds of an A to Z hootenanny of the country music legend’s greatest hits. They form, with Cory Goodrich portraying both Cash’s mom, Carrie Cloveree, and wife, June Carter Cash, a formidable trio honoring the music of the Grand Ole Opry alumnus.
Further supported by reigning musical direction Jeff winner Malcolm Ruhl on guitar, etc.; fiddlest extraordinaire Greg Hirte; and terrific drummer Billy Shaffer, this ensemble deftly moves the audience through 32 superbly-paced songs spanning Cash’s multiple genres of country, folk, gospel, rock and blues.
Musical highlights abound. Among the audience favorites is the flawless harmonization of Goodrich and Lewis in a mashup of “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” But it’s hard to choose when there’s truly not a dud in the bunch.
On opening night, this amazing ensemble dazzled with playfulness in tunes like, “While I’ve Got it on My Mind,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” and “I’ve Been Everywhere” mixed with Cash standards “If I Were a Carpenter,” Going to Memphis,” “Walk the Line” and the title song, among others.
Prospective patrons should know, as in its first iteration, Ring of Fire is really more tribute band than musical theater. Creator Richard Maltby, Jr. (Tony winners Baby and Ain’t Misbehavin’) threads in short vignettes connecting Cash’s life to the music. But make no mistake…this is a Johnny Cash concert…a Johnny Cash concert of the highest quality.
As such, those who don’t care for Cash or country music will find other productions more to their liking. But for aficionados or those open to becoming one, know this: Spring/Summer 2015’s Ring of Fire isn’t simply a great revue; it’s a reincarnation of legends.
Performances for “Ring of Fire—the Music of Johnny Cash” at the Mercury Theatre Chciago, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, run through Nov. 1. They are Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 3 pm and 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 3 pm and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm and 7 pm. More information and tickets ($25 to $65) available online here or by phone at 773-325-1700