Johnny Cash – "The Man in Black" – is clearly the seminal icon in the world of country music.
But in "Ring of Fire" the musical that opened Sunday night at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret, Cash proves he is so much more than that.
What we see in this spectacular production is a huge slice of Americana, the country with warts and hopes and dreams and horrors and fears. The country that suffered but always somehow triumphed.
That’s the Johnny Cash that was there opening night. We saw not the story of a singer and his wife and his backup band. We saw the story of America.
It’s hard to put into words exactly what this theatrical event is. It’s not a musical revue. It’s not a tribute. It’s not strictly musical theater. What it really is, is great theater with music. Or music with great theater.
Five amazingly talented actors/singers/musicians take us through the early Johnny Cash years. From the time he picked cotton, like the slaves had before him, to his creation of a very special and distinctive sound with the Tennessee Three, to the drugs and pain and the womanizing and in the end, to the stories of Cash’s singular view of America.
This play was originally conceived in 2005 with a large cast of actors and musicians. The idea seemed great, but the show died after one horrible month on Broadway.
Richard Maltby, who co-created that version, obviously believed that somewhere in the Johnny Cash story was a play worth doing right. Maltby is a Tony Award-winning musical director/lyricist/writer and he obviously decided that just as the life of Johnny Cash had a beautiful simplicity to it, so, too, must a show about him.
He has taken the " Wreck of the Hesperus" and turned it into "America the Beautiful," and he directed what took place at the Stackner Sunday night.
There are now five actors in the cast. Jason Edwards, who plays Cash and who sings many of the Cash songs; Eddie Clendening, who does a lot of the Cash numbers; Mark W. Winchester, who makes a stand-up bass sound like a glorious solo instrument; David Miles Keenan, who plays anything with strings, from guitar to mandolin to bass to fiddle; and Trenna Barnes, who plays June Carter Cash, the second and last wife of Johnny.
Let’s start with Edwards, who has the look, feel and sound of Cash. It’s not an impression. There are no impersonators of Johnny Cash here. Edwards, though, obviously understands the atmosphere Cash created. When he sings "Flesh and Blood," the ode to June, you can feel the yearning.
"So when this day was ended
I was still not satisfied
For I knew ev'rything I touched
Would wither and would die
And love is all that will remain
And grow from all these seed;"
"Mother Nature's quite a lady
But you're the one I need
Flesh and blood, need flesh and blood
And you're the one I need."
Clendening also had Cash songs in his repertoire. He has a bit of a snarl so we almost got the feeling that Elvis Presley had not yet left the building and was hanging around to sing yet another Cash song.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment of a dramatic life came when Cash had found the succor and sadness of pills of many colors. His descent into addling addiction almost wrecked his marriage and almost wrecked him. Seated on a chair with the other musicians grouped across the stage from him, Clendening created a breathless hush with his lonesome "Sunday Morning Coming Down," written by Kris Kristofferson.
"On a Sunday morning sidewalk,
I'm wishin’ Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cause there's something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone.
And there's nothing short a' dying
That's half as lonesome as the sound
Of the sleeping city sidewalk
And Sunday morning coming down."
I watched the play Sunday night with Clendening’s wife, Ruby Ann, who is a stunning Portuguese singer with a vibrant sense of humor and a critical eye for the work of other musicians, including her husband. Even Ruby Ann sat quietly, moved so much by "Sunday Morning Coming Down."
Winchester is one of the best upright bass players I’ve ever heard, and that’s saying something, since my brother-in-law is Don Moore, who played bass with Miles Davis for years. Winchester provides both the bottom for a song and turns it into an instrument for melody. His version of the humorously macabre "Delia’s Gone" had the audience roaring in laughter.
Keenan was an incredibly versatile musician playing anything that had strings and playing it well. He also has a devilish grin that seems to punctuate songs at the perfect time. His musicianship was breathtaking.
Barnes, the lone female on stage, has a huge voice that can climb mountains and hush little babies, all in the same song. She is both perky and funny and sexy and charming, creating the complex woman who loved Cash more, almost, than life itself. Her multi-speed version of "I’ve Been Everywhere" was played to an audience that sat on the edge of its seats wondering is she could get through each verse, each one faster than the previous one, without a misstep. The roar at the end of the song signaled our shared joy that she did it.
But her greatest moment may well have been with the lament of "I Still Miss Someone." It’s a song that Cash sang about June, but this play changes it up and has June sing it.
"I go out on a party
And look for a little fun
But I find a darkened corner
Because I still miss someone."
The technical aspects of this play are wonderful, from the set to the costumes to the lighting. But a special nod must go to Ray Nardelli, who designed the sound for the show. It’s a hard job to handle five spectacular musicians on stage at the same time, yet there was nary a whisper that escaped unheard.
Dwight Yoakam once said that "country music is the blues for white people."
I think he was right, but this spectacular example of blues for white people came from The Man in Black.
"Ring of Fire" runs through May 5 at the Stackner Cabaret. Information is available at milwaukeerep.com.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.