Chicago Theater Review: RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH (Mercury Theater Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 5, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Ring of Fire - Cory Goodrich, Michael Monroe GoodmanThe “Man in Black” is back. Actually, it’s more like a non sci-fi “Men in Black”: It takes both Kent M. Lewis and Michael Monroe Goodman to play, respectively, the mature and younger Johnny Cash. Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash, a sensation at Indiana’s Theater at the Center, is a highly popular tribute by Richard Maltby, Jr. (conceived by William Meade) that’s just been retooled into a roof-lifting, crowd-pleasing, foot-stomping Mercury Theater presentation. With just enough talk to set up the songs and sum up the life, Brian Russell’s well-cooked revival honors the life (1932-2003) and work (33 or so songs) of the bluegrass troubadour, his musical and emotional partnership with fellow crooner June Carter, and his sympathy for underdogs everywhere–the line he always walked.

Ring of Fire - Malcolm Ruhl, Michael Monroe Goodman, Greg Hirte

The deep-voiced country-western phenom scored in crucial capacities–as a balladeer of heartbreak (“I Still Miss Someone”) and happiness (“Ring of Fire”), as an instantaneous mood-maker (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”), even as a sober-faced comic and a master of the talkin’ blues  (“A Boy Named Sue”). Set designer Angela Miller’s friendly locale is Grace Station, a kind of imaginary train depot where faith and fun combine and music lovers get their just reward.

Theater Review: RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH (Mercury Theater in Chicago)The songs speak for themselves, with a terse but telling narrative neatly filling in their biographical subtext. We’re reminded of Cash’s deep roots in Depression-era Arkansas, specifically his wonder at how a supposedly destructive flood in fact spread bottomland soil to replenish the family’s cotton crop (“Country Boy”). The Cash clan made family harmony quite literal (“Daddy Sang Bass”). Alas, the accidental death of Johnny’s 14-year-old brother Jack (“In the Sweet Bye and Bye”) schooled him in sorrow, while Memphis’ Grand Ole Opry and Sun Records helped the budding singer move from gospel to country glory. At the former Cash met his mate and muse June Carter (a wonderful Cory Goodrich), here spoofing crazy country metaphors with “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart.” The rest is gold on platinum. A stint on a chain gang gave a caring Cash fellow feeling for life’s losers everywhere (his standard concert-opener “Folsom Prison Blues”). So did his addiction to pep pills, penchant for piety and the common touch he brought to every note.

Theater Review: RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH (Mercury Theater in Chicago)Inevitably, the salute is a showcase. Lewis brings charisma and confidence to the signature “Man in Black,” while Goodman suggests the drive and dreams that fueled the Cash to come (“Going to Memphis”). Goodrich and Lewis turn every chart-buster to wise man’s gold, never m0re so than in the love-laden “I Walk the Line,” a divine duet. Superb back-up from a four-star country combo comes from talented young Austin Cook on keyboards and more, veteran Malcolm Ruhl on fiddle and guitars, Billy Shaffer on percussion, and Greg Hirte on fiddle and mandolin, as well as electric, acoustic and resonator guitars. The orchestrations, by Steven Bishop and Jeff Lisenby, confirm the legend with every hard and soft hit. There’s even a sweet-tempered salute–“Egg Suckin’ Dog”–to the cornball acts that make the Opry a shelter for the silly. It’s a very generous celebration, coached to perfection and firing on all cylinders. Not one moment drags. After two hours you can hurt from smiling.

Ring of Fire - Kent M. Lewis

photos by Michael Brosilow

Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash
Mercury Theater Chicago
3745 North Southport Avenue
Wed at 7:30; Thurs at 3 and 7:30;
Fri at 8; Sat at 3 and 8; Sun at 3 and 7:30
ends on June 28, 2015 EXTENDED through November 1, 2015
for tickets, call 773.325.1700 or visit

for info on Chicago Theater, visit

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