Actor and singer Michael Goodman says playing the role of Johnny Cash, "Young Johnny," to be specific, is an intimidating challenge while trying to capture not only the legendary vocal sound, but also a larger-than-life personality.
Dubbed "the Man in Black," which was the name of his 37th album released on Columbia Records in 1971, he stood 6 feet 2 inches tall.
Goodman plays "Young Johnny" in a dual lead performance with Kent Lewis playing "Johnny Cash" in the Chicagoland premiere of "Ring of Fire-The Music of Johnny Cash" starting previews tonight at Theatre at the Center in Munster and opening Sunday night for a run through March 30.
"Johnny Cash lived his life and career in his own way and was a strong presence in every way both on stage and off," Goodman said.
"He ranks as a man with his own unique style that connected to others through his music."
From the iconic songbook of Cash, who died far too soon at age 71 in September 2003, comes this unique musical about love and faith, struggle and success, rowdiness and redemption, and home and family about a man with a personality and talent so big, it takes two people to portray him on stage.
More than 35 of Cash's hit songs including "I Walk the Line," "A Boy Named Sue," "Folsom Prison Blues" along with the title tune, paint a musical portrait of Cash that the show's director Brian Russell promises is "a foot-stompin', crowd-pleasin' salute to the uniquely American Legend." Jeff Award-winner Cory Goodrich stars as Cash's also talented performing wife June Carter, who died at age 73 in May 2003. The musical direction is by Malcolm Ruhl for the Theatre at the Center production.
"This is the story of this country music legend, but as told through the performances of his songs and music," Russell said.
"Our cast playing the roles of Johnny and June and the others share the stage with some very talented musicians."
Four talented multi-instrumentalist/performers round out the cast: Greg Hirte, Billy Shaffer, and William Underwood join Ruhl.
"The only other run of this musical I know of anywhere close to our area is when The Milwaukee Repertory Theater did 'Ring of Fire' a year ago last March," Russell emphasized.
"So I don't consider Milwaukee, Wis. close enough to be a Chicagoland premiere, compared to having it staged as a fresh production right here on stage in Munster, which is just 30 minutes from Chicago. So yes, in my mind our production really is the Chicagoland premiere. And we've added new elements, like a piano and drums to the stage."
Russell describes the production as "a musical revue that guides audiences on a journey through Cash's storied life and celebrated music, from the cotton fields of Arkansas to the Grand Ole Opry." The show was created by Richard Maltby, Jr., conceived by William Meade, with orchestrations by Steven Bishop and Jeff Lisenby.
"We have not set out to impersonate Johnny Cash, we are celebrating Johnny Cash, and his incredible life of ups and downs," Russell said.
"This is someone who, at age 10, had his brother Jack die. Later, Cash once said that when that tragedy happened, he recalled his father saying 'the wrong song was taken from him.' Cash's incredible life is reflected in his music."
Russell said this version is a re-imagining of the original Broadway production, more intimate, but with a full musical soundscape. After successful test runs in outside cities, the production opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 12, 2006 but closed only one month after opening, with critics attributing the result as the show booked into a theater too large for the intimacy of the show. The original Broadway production featured Tony Award winner Jarrod Emick as Cash.
While Cash is primarily remembered as a country music artist, Russell reminds the entertainer's style spanned from gospel to folk, rock to blues, and country sandwiched in between it all.
Russell, working with musical director Malcolm Ruhl, cast Goodman as "Young Johnny," realizing he had grounded talent for singing and acting, as well as a history with "the identity of Johnny Cash."
When he was cast, Goodman, 35, was at the time playing the role of Cash in Chicago's long-running stage hit "Million Dollar Quartet," which he left in November after two years of playing the Man in Black.
Originally from Bowling Green, Ky., Goodman moved to Chicago nearly four years ago and studied at the famed Second City comedy stage.
"It was really because of word of mouth that I auditioned for this production of 'Ring of Fire,' " Goodman said.
"The musical director Malcolm had never even met me before."
Goodman grew-up around country music legends since his own father worked as a "banjo picker" sharing the stage with many famous names, including many performances at The Grand Ole Opry.
"I have many photos from when I was kid with these legendary Grand Ole Opry stars," Goodman said.
"I don't have any photos of myself with Cash, so if I ever did cross paths with him when I was just a kid, I have no recollection. But my family was very good friends with Bill Monroe, and I recall I attended his funeral back when I was still so young, I had no idea what a legend he was." (Monroe died at age 84 in 1996.)
The design team for "Ring of Fire" includes Scenic Designer Angie Miller; Lighting Designer Shelley Strasser-Holland; Sound Designer Barry G. Funderburg; Costume Designer Brenda Winstead and Props Designer Jessie Howe. Theatre at the Center Artistic Director is William Pullinsi and the stage manager is Rebecca Green, with Technical Director Ann Davis.
"One of my favorite photos I have from growing up is at the Grand Ole Opry with Minnie Pearl when I was 2-years-old," Goodman said.
"I wasn't sure who she was at the time, but what I knew was she seemed like such a nice lady with a big smile."