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BWW Review: Mercury Theater Chicago's RING OF FIRE Blazes With Talent


Mercury Theater Chicago's RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH celebrates Cash's life and music, and as performed by the production's cast of immensely talented actor/musicians, it is a celebration, indeed. As devised by Richard Maltby, Jr. (who is credited as the show's creator in the program), there's not much exposition here - though Kent M. Lewis narrates the action as the adult Johnny Cash. The show does offer small glimpses of biographical insight into Cash's life. But the real reason to see this show is to hear Lewis and the rest of the cast rip into Cash's song catalogue - the production is more akin to a song cycle or revue.

As directed by Brian Russell and performed by the cast, Cash's songs are brought to energetic, tuneful life. Kent M. Lewis and Michael Monroe Goodman lead the way as Johnny Cash and Young Johnny Cash, respectively. Both actors have singing voices with that deep, resonant sound unique to Cash. Goodman, in particular, also has a lovely Southern twang that accentuates Cash's country roots. Austin Cook, Greg Hirte, Malcolm Ruhl (also the show's musical director), and Billy Shaffer round out the show's ensemble. With the wide variety of instruments on display here, RING OF FIRE becomes a true concert. And as the love of Cash's life, June Carter, Cory Goodrich may well be the standout performer here. Goodrich's singing is both sweet and powerful, and she sings with true, stirring emotion on a number of the show's ballads. But she also has plenty of fun - as with her rapid-fire delivery on the second act's opener, "I've Been Everywhere."

While the first act of RING OF FIRE provides some background into Johnny Cash's early life and career, the second act mostly becomes a rollicking concert. It was this succession of numbers that truly swept me up in the show, including Cash's famous numbers "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line." Lewis rails into the former and truly encapsulates Cash's energy, while Lewis and Goodrich perform the latter as a sweet duet.

Attention should also be paid to the design elements in RING OF FIRE. Angela Miller's set possesses a Southern vibe that nicely sets the tone for the show. She has also devised a set of train tracks for Lewis to walk along, a nice metaphor for Cash's journey as an artist. Brenda Winstead's costumes also hit the mark, particularly her array of lovely dresses for Goodrich. Kevin Barthel's wig designs for Goodrich are similarly wonderful - becoming more elaborate as RING OF FIRE progresses.

For fans of Johnny Cash, popular Chicago jukebox musical MILLION DOLLAR QUARTER, or country music, RING OF FIRE is sure to please. The revue nicely showcases the Cash's song catalogue with a delightful cast more than able to do his music justice. RING OF FIRE certainly won't leave audiences singing the "Folsom Prison Blues" but will rather have them clapping and toe-tapping along to the Man in Black's biggest hits.

RING OF FIRE: THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH has been extended through November 1 at Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 North Southport Avenue. Tickets are $25-$65. or (773) 325-1700.

Photo Credit: Brett A. Beiner

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