He has been called one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. While he’s remembered as a country musician (and rightfully so as in 1980 he became the youngest living inductee in to the Country Hall of Fame) his music crossed genres from country to blues, folk, gospel, rockabilly and rock ’n’ roll.
This weekend Westman audiences have a unique opportunity to tap their toes and their memory when "Ring of Fire — The Music of Johnny Cash" comes to town.
The musical is a first for local theatre company Mecca Productions, which has previously staged more traditional musicals. This time, the story comes to life primarily through music. While no one impersonates Cash, his presence is felt in every moment of the show.
"His songs and his words tell his story — the words we speak in the show were written by Cash in his autobiography," director Lisa Vasconcelos says.
The story of Cash’s life unfolds for audience members during the two-hour performance. With his humble beginnings cotton farming with his parents and siblings, "Ring of Fire" captures a lifestyle familiar to many Westman families.
"It’s a story we can all relate to," says Dylan Woodcock, third-year university student and one of the four men in the show. "It doesn’t matter how young or how old, people will connect to Johnny’s experiences with his family."
While the production features many of Cash’s country hits, including the title song, "Walk the Line" and "Jackson" which won the June Carter/Cash duo a Grammy, "Ring of Fire" takes audiences across many music genres.
Although she has worked behind the scenes as music director of past musicals, Katherine Sherris has enjoyed the opportunity to step on stage and perform in this unique show.
"People shying away because they think it’s going to be all country music will be surprised with how varied and dynamic his musical styles were," she says.
Rehearsals began in June and mastering the music of The Man in Black has been a challenge to even the veteran musicians in the group, including David Simard, who sings and plays guitar in the production.
"I always loved Johnny's music, with its familiarity and simplicity. But preparing for this performance has opened my ears to how intricate his sound actually is. It’s a lot trickier that I expected it to be."
The music has been a challenge to the cast.
"It’s pushed us all as performers to grow and certainly stretched us as vocalists" says Vasconcelos, who also performs.
The joy of performing almost 40 hits from Cash’s discography is a sentiment echoed by Todd Bullee.
"If you know nothing about Johnny Cash, you’ll see the story of his life unfold and you’ll be surprised how many of his songs you know. If you are a Johnny Cash fan, your toes will be tapping to hits like ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box,’ ‘Hey Porter,’ ‘Get Rhythm’ and ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’," he said.
"Visually the show is very appealing. The band is right on stage with us and I know it’s a treat for audiences to see the musicians perform. They are the ones who bring the music to life and we’re really proud of the group we’ve assembled for this show. We needed an amazing group of musicians — and we’ve got them."
Brandon’s piano man Gord Vail is featured on keyboard; Chad Leitold on lead guitar; Rory Graham on violin; Ryan Feldstead on standup bass; Darren Hebner on rhythm guitar and Matt Duboff on drums. Rounding out the 15 performers are Stephanie Bessant, Tiana Vasconcelos, Hannah Price and Shay Harms.
Taking an audience through a lifetime of songs, stories and adventures in two hours has been a challenge embraced by the production team, including Susan and Klaus Brechmann and Susan Dobson.
While well-known for elaborate sets and costumes, "Ring of Fire" required Mecca Productions to take a different focus, including the use of technology to help tell the story.
Local videographer Nate Bower has assembled various images from Cash’s life spanning decades and continents. The end result is a very special production, notes Woodcock.
"This is the most unique show I’ve been in. It’s unlike anything Mecca’s done before, unlike anything seen on stage before in terms of its content and its message." Perhaps it is the most ‘Westman show’ I’ve ever been part of."
"Ring of Fire" runs tonight through Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. and closes with a matinee Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets are available at the WMCA box office, 728-9510, or at: wmca.ca. For more information visit: mecca-productions.com.