May I confess here that my relationship to Johnny Cash has always been a bit on the cold side? I grew up in the ’60s in a home where Hee Haw was forced on my pre-teen self the way some kids were routinely dosed with cod liver oil. Neither leaves a pleasant taste when you’re 6 and would rather suck on Dum Dums and turn the dial to whatever is on Channel 41.
In fact, no one who might have appeared on either side of Grandpa Jones’ reciting the components of the night’s dinner menu, or who might sit in for a robust interlude of picking and grinning, stood much chance of being endeared to me.
“Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” reminds me of how much I’ve missed over the years.
Every now and then, I’ll pick up choruses of Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Jr., George Jones, Cash and other greats as they pour out of truck windows and South End bars in the summertime. I’ll be drawn into the songs, eventually following their strings through iTunes and downloading a few records here and there onto my phone.
But “Ring of Fire” was revelatory, and as I tempered my building enthusiasm in a conservative, buttoned-down, near-capacity crowd during the matinee last Saturday afternoon, and held back tears during the troupe’s loveliest love song, “Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan,” I had a hard time telling whether the emotion related more to the performance going on in front of me or to being connected with a part of my past—and a huge part of the musical and human world—I had too blithely dismissed as “not me.”
Craig McEldowney, who narrates the story and plays the singer in his mature years, brings genuine pathos to the several recreated episodes of Cash’s life. As the younger Cash—the Adolescent in Black?—Corbin Mayer presents an up-and-coming artist with a unique, dark ink voice with the swagger and machismo to make it in the big leagues. In supporting roles, Brian Russell Carey and Paul Wyatt delight with magnanimous performances and tack-smart dexterity with their voices and instruments.
But dang it, it’s Alex Keiper—summoning Cash’s mother, then an early love of the singer and finally June Carter Cash—who steals the show. As much as I was enjoying the menfolk, I found myself anxious for her to show up again in a different wig or a different dress and one more time bring her just-right brew of twang and tweak to pull the heartstrings or tap the funny bone. If I loved the show (which I did), I was smitten with Alex Keiper.
You can see “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash” at Actors Theatre of Louisville through August 25. (The show is proving so popular the run has been extended.) It’s performed in the cozy Victor Jory Theatre, which makes the show even more intimate. Heck, you may see me on August 10, when a special karaoke evening will allow both die-hard Cash fans and newcomers like me an opportunity to belt it out right there on the stage.
By Joseph Grove