AURORA|The face of Johnny Cash features prominently on the Mount Rushmore of country music. Yet the man in black transcends any one musical taste or style.
He is the musical hero of country music fans like my grandfather, a master sergeant in the Air Force from Kentucky coal country and as much a straight arrow as an Okie from Muskogee. An album of Cash’s gospel numbers would be fine accompaniment to any church Sunday picnic.
But Cash isn’t just claimed by country and gospel fans. He is a hero to the disciples of punk. Cash albums can be found in music collections next to Black Flag, The Ramones and The Dead Milkmen. And his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” is the rare instance of a new version outshining the original.
With an almost universal love of Cash’s music throughout society, trying to pull off a review of his music is an unenviable task. To paraphrase a popular meme, one does not simply cover Johnny Cash.
But the cast of “Ring of Fire” at the Vintage Theater doesn’t shrink from the challenge of covering the master. The musical review of Cash’s work, which first debuted on Broadway in 2006, skips loads of exposition and instead tells the story of Cash’s life through his music. Sets of Cash’s songs are tied together by a quick conversation with the audience about that time in his life.
Since “Ring of fire” isn’t a straight biographical play, no one performer is burdened with trying to bring Cash completely to life. Actor Benjamin Cowhick is the closest thing the play has to someone trying to embody Cash. He represents Cash in brief interludes among musical sets.
Instead, the cast is free to focus on the reason why the audience is at the Vintage in the first place: to hear the music of Cash. And the band Vintage has pulled together nails the performance of more than 30 Cash songs. Not only is the band full of talented musicians, the sound is tight beyond what could only have been a few weeks of rehearsals at best. The group is worthy of any music venue in the metro area.
The performers eschew microphones, and their un-amplified voices fill the theater. Except for a few instances, this move pays off. It’s not just a cover band playing some Cash hits, it’s a talented band bringing Cash’s work to life. The show has the feel of musicians trading covers of their favorite Cash classics.
Cowhick succeeds at impersonating one of the most iconic bass baritone voices in history. Cowhick’s impersonation of Cash is on the money. The exception is when Cowhick reaches for those famous low notes without a mic to beef up his voice. It’s a testament to Cash’s famous range and power.
When bass player Ray Anderson shows off his voice, the audience registers the feat. He parallels the voices that used to come through my grandfather’s record player when he schooled me on what country music is and why it’s the greatest art form ever.
And while the band as a whole deserves praise, it’s Isabella Duran as June Carter Cash that gets away with stealing the show. Duran, who embodies the love of Cash’s life, mesmerized the audience each time she sang. Duran’s epic voice certainly rattles windows in the lobby. She owns the performance not just with her amazing voice but with the zeal and sass she brings to the songs.
With lesser musicians by her side, Duran’s performance would overshadow why they were all there. Instead, in the midst of such talented musicians, Duran is just one highlight in this tribute to Cash.
4 out of 5 stars
What: “Ring of fire: the music of Johnny Cash”
When: June 23 through Aug. 6. Fri.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m., Sun. at 2:30 p.m. Mon. July 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Vintage Theater, 1468 Dayton St. in Aurora
Tickets: $28-$34. For tickets visit www.vintagetheatre.com or call 303-856-7830.