The Man In BlackBlack clothes? Check. Black guitar? Check. Uncomplicated melodies, distinctive vocal, rock star swagger? Check, check and check. Why, oh why then, is it so hard to emulate Johnny Cash?

Next in line to take on the country legend comes Gregory ‘Tex’ Perkins, the voice behind The Cruel Sea, teaming up with country quartet The Tennessee Four and vocal chameleon Rachael Tidd, with only Joaquin Phoenix’s part in movie Walk The Line as a reference to a truly decent turn in Cash’s shoes. And look what happened to Joaquin… If Tex doesn’t have career aspirations as a chubby, bearded rapper then he best watch out!

His new tribute to the Man In Black, a 2 hour show of the same name, combines musical tribute, Cash trivia and a little character acting to detail the life and loves of the man christened JR. Set in the perfectly intimate but grandiose arena of the Athenaeum Theatre, the show begins with a bang, Perkins and the band striding onto a stage bursting with musical instruments to rip out the anthem Walk the Line before an excitable, whooping audience. When the applause finally dies down, Perkins steps out of character and onto a stool to begin telling the story of Johnny Cash, starting from birth.

Tidd soon joins as raconteur number two, both slipping effortlessly between storyteller and the characters of Cash and wife Joan Carter respectively. The production follows this format - song/story/song/story - till the end, with the hits of JC, of course, being the stars of the show.

From the first cover to the last, the musical performance is uniformly excellent, The Tennessee Four tight and focussed, and clearly enjoying themselves, doing well to avoid looking lacklustre during the slower numbers.

Perkins, for his part, succeeds where other would-be impersonators have failed, sounding much more like the man in black and less like the man in white leather with glitter and sunglasses, his voice powerful and passionate but retaining a certain cheekiness appropriate to Cash’s lyrics. He wields his guitar as a prop alone but when he delivers lines the way he does ‘son of a bitch!’ from A Boy Named Sue the instrument is rendered obsolete anyway.

If Perkins’ vocal hits like a wave, Tidd’s shimmers like the surface above, bringing to life the higher register in glorious fashion, while the chemistry between the two performers is increasingly delightful as the show, and the story, goes on.

All elements combined, the songs sizzle and pop with energy, particularly pre-interval number Jackson, a glorious, fun-time romp that has audience members jumping to their feet to applaud.

As a set of Johnny Cash covers, then, the performance is an unprecedented success; who would have thought an Aussie, former frontman of a band called ‘Thug’ could so competently bring the stage persona of a deep-south, cotton picking, pill-popping, bourbon soaked American legend to life? The singing and dialogue of both Perkins and Tidd is witty and entertaining throughout, charming the audience with their very passable Southern drawl. The story telling between hits is equally as engaging especially from Rachael Tidd who is remarkably affecting as an orator – when she describes the events of Jack Cash’s tragic death, the audible lump in her throat could almost be there for her own lost sibling.

BUT - and there is, unfortunately, a ‘but’ – there is maybe something missing here.

Yes, Perkins sounds like Johnny Cash. Yes, he even looks a little like him and swaggers around his microphone like a true desperado, but amongst all of the frivolity and humour onstage, perhaps we lose some of the darker elements in the Johnny Cash story.

While Tex is fantastic to watch as the Man In Black, it can’t be ignored that perhaps Joaquin Phoenix was better equipped to portray a man in the shadow of his brothers death and father’s derision, a man who swallowed amphetamines and bible passages in the same gulp and ultimately succumbed to a broken heart.

There is a certain ‘hauntedness’ to Cash, a subtle dismay that in certain numbers is somehow omitted from this performance. Taking the penultimate number Hurt (a cover of a song by US gothic techno band Nine Inch Nails) as a prime example, Perkins’ voice is pitch perfect, a flawless copy of Cash’s own diction, and yet… it doesn’t quite quiver the same way that the recorded vocal does, doesn’t quite resonate as much when singing lines like ‘I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel’.

But, let’s face it, did we go to the theatre to be depressed? Did we make our way through a chilly April night to hear the tragic tale of a man consumed by grief and regret? Or, did we arrive in our droves to a sold-out show, at a perfect venue to let a set of performers at the top of their game whirl us through the expertly told yarn of one of music’s last geniuses? Do we think Tex Perkins, Rachael Tidd and The Tennessee Four may have asked themselves these exact questions already? Just perhaps.

To answer the initial poser, there can never be a perfect tribute to Johnny Cash, because there can never be such a talent emerging from such a chequered past as his. There are so many facets to Cash’s story, universal and unique, joyous and jilting, known and unknown. What is for certain, however, is that all the best ones are on display in The Man In Black – fans of Johnny Cash’s music will be delighted.

The Man In Black

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre | 188 Collins Street Melbourne
Dates: 20 April - 9 May, 2010
Times: Tuesdays 7.00pm, Wednesday - Fridays 8.00pm, Saturdays 2.00pm & 8.00pm, Sunday 5.00pm
Tickets: $45 - $49
Bookings: (03) 9650 1500

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