The Man In Black tells the Johnny Cash story from start to finish in a laidback blend of spoken word and song. Tex and Rachael Tidd tell Cash's story in their own voices sometimes in conversation with each other, and occasionally slip into character throughout. We hear about Cash's early years doing it tough in Arkansas; the death of his 14 year old brother from which he never truly recovers; his early singing career, the meeting of Vivian Liberto, his first wife, and the thousands of pages of love letters they wrote while he was on military duty in Germany; his prolific song-writing and performing; the legendary performances in Folsom and San Quentin prisons; his prolonged love affair with co-performer June Carter; how drugs and alcohol kept taking over his life; and we follow him into old age and his eventual death just three months after Carter's.
The story runs the gamut of emotions, obviously. But the overall feel of the show is one of joy. This is a celebration of a flawed artist who in the end made a massive impact on music history and brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people. As moving as certain parts of the story are, the smiles and happiness are never far away. This show is loads of fun.
The rapport between Perkins and Tidd is charming and casual. There appeared to be quite a few mistimed gags in the banter, but far from detracting from the dynamics it actually served to capture what the vibe was probably like on stage between Cash and Carter; it probably wasn't a highly polished performance in real life.
Except for the music. Tex Perkins does a superb Johnny Cash. It's quite uncanny just how perfectly he nails it. He opens with I Walk The Line, then every few minutes throughout breaks out into all the Cash favourites as well as – to this punter – some lesser known ones and he is just so good. Clearly Perkins enjoys this role and the audience lapped it up. There is much laughter throughout as we learn of Cash's obsession with train-related songs and novelty songs like A Boy Named Sue. But musically, even if there is a gleam in the eye, it's all taken quite seriously so that even the most sincere of Johnny Cash fans won't be disappointed. The crowd really got into the music, and the band – The Tennessee Four – were very impressive in recreating The Tennessee Three sound.
If you are not overly familiar with the Johnny Cash story, you'll no doubt learn a few things. I was intrigued by the fact that Johnny and Vivian wrote 10,000 pages of love letters in three years... you have to wonder about the true nature of their relationship compared to how it was portrayed in the 2005 bio flick Walk The Line. Interesting follow up reading there.
But the main reason for seeing this show is for its entertainment value. This is a stage full of engaging performers telling a fascinating story. The medley at the end will leave your hands sore from clapping and your face in a permanent smile. Johnny Cash is unlikely to be touring any time soon, but if you want to see what he might have been like in his charismatic prime, check out the next best thing.
THE MAN IN BLACK
The Johnny Cash Story
Written by Jim McPherson
Venue: Athenaeum Theatre | 188 Collins Street, Melbourne
Dates: 16 – 21 July, 2013
Tickets: $89, Groups 10+ $79.00
Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au | 13 2849