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Johnny Cash's life celebrated in Devonport premiere of musical Ring of Fire

The full cast belts out the finale for the Ring of Fire stage show in Devonport. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

"Hello … I'm not Johnny Cash" drawls local theatre legend Sid Sidebottom as Wendy (from costume) passes him another black shirt in the backstage hallway.

In a full dress rehearsal for Ring of Fire, The Music of Johnny Cash, the former federal member for Braddon demonstrates that he can deliver the deep and low tones of the legendary American singer.

Besides co-directing, Sid Sidebottom delivers the low tones of Johnny Cash on stage. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

But this is not a tribute show. It's a journey through Cash's life and a genderless celebration of universally loved songs, hence the play on Cash's famous opening line.

"I'm not him. No-one is playing Johnny Cash, yet we all are," Mr Sidebottom says, reaching for what must be the last long, black trenchcoat available in Devonport.

Three divas in a bar-room fight. Annette Dawes, Laura Auton and Sherry Rand bring A Boy named Sue to life. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

"In this show, there are a number of classic Johnny Cash songs sung by females. I think people will be really excited by that and you do still feel that Johnny Cash is there.

The cast of six singers are joined by a seven piece on-stage band — the Smokin' Locals —  led by co-director David Turner.

Laura Auton, Sherry Rand and Zac Weeks on stage. A feature of Ring of Fire is up to six-part harmonies. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

The singers joining Mr Sidebottom are Annette Dawes, Zac Weeks, Laura Auton, Sherry Rand and Andrew Grey.

Buddy and Johnny. Different cats

Last year Mr Sidebottom directed the Devonport Choral Society's Buddy Holly story at the same venue: Devonport's Town Hall Theatre.

That show was very much led by a star turn by young singer, guitarist and actor, Ezra Shelverton.

For his energetic Buddy Holly, he won the Tasmanian Theatre Award prize for Outstanding Male Lead Performance.

Andrew Grey belts out a song during the dress rehearsal for Ring of Fire. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

This year it's the newly formed Cradle Coast Theatre that is staging Ring of Fire. And the experience has been a baptism of fire.

They chose a show that was flexible enough to get through a COVID period.

"We've been severely affected by the pandemic. We've had to postpone the show and a majority of this cast and the band have had COVID," Mr Sidebottom says.

"So, it's been a long journey. A bit like Johnny Cash's story I think."

Music is light, dark, 's**t kickin'

Mr Sidebottom says there's a lot of darkness in Johnny Cash's music.

"Here's a man who had great faith but also sinned greatly. He hurt a lot of people, was hurt by a lot of people," he says.

The life and music of Johnny Cash is a journey from the light to the dark and back again. (Supplied: Jim Marshall)

Over where the band is warming up, drummer Pete Jermy points to the official musical notation on the stand that directs his drums on the classic song Jackson.

It reads: "s**t kickin".

The musical direction is clear for Johnny Cash's rhythm. It's kickin'. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

"It's an apt description of the relentless, big rhythm that's in so much of this music," the drummer says.

The singers revel in it too, belting out 30 Cash greats across the two acts of the show, often in duet and with stunning six-part harmonies on the gospel numbers.

Annette Dawes lines up the costumes for a dress rehearsal of Ring of Fire, The Music of Johnny Cash. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

Annette Dawes has been travelling 90 minutes each way from Irish Town — after work — for each rehearsal and will do it again for each of the 10 shows between May 13 and May 28.

"I've come to appreciate Johnny Cash even more through this experience," Ms Dawes says.

"I love the group songs, Five Foot High and Rising, Daddy Sang Bass. They're just a heap of fun."

Co-star Laura Orton concurs: "I love Daddy Sang Bass, especially the a capella part at the start."

Sid Sidebottom, Annette Dawes and Laura Auton digging into Johnny Cash's gospel. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

The show is backed by a projection of archival images from Cash's earliest days as a poor kid on an Arkansas cotton farm through his early marriage to Vivian Liberto and on to the evolution of his great love with June Carter.

Stage manager and set builder Max Darvell stays in the wings and keeps the show on track. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)

The power of the show is in the greatness of the songs and in the fine cast of local singers who can all "wear black" with aplomb when called upon.

Sherry Rand, Zac Weeks and Andrew Grey are all known for regular professional gigging along the coast and know how to own the stage.

The premiere performance is at the Devonport Town Hall Theatre on Friday night.

Sid Sidebottom and Zac Weeks get strumming for the Johnny Cash classic Big River. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)
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This blog is now closed
Get all your news in one place