“You can burn my house, steal my car, drink my liquor from an old fruit jar.”
This is James Penca’s first solo in “Million Dollar Quartet.” On June 21, he sang to a lively crowd as Johnny Cash, a role he’s played before and will play again, this time at the Argyle Theatre in Babylon.
As he finished his moment in the musical’s opening number, “Blue Suede Shoes,” audience members shifted in their seats and some stole glances at each other. “He sounds just like him,” someone whispered.
“Million Dollar Quartet” is based on the true story of a night of stars: On Dec. 4, 1956, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis assembled at Sun Records Studios in Tennessee for a one-night-only jam session. The musical follows the clash of personalities and professional pursuits that unfolded throughout the evening.
Penca grew up in Cleveland, and “Million Dollar Quartet” marked his theatrical debut on Long Island. But in some ways, he’s a local — Penca is a hockey buff and since there’s no professional team in Cleveland, he grew to love the New York Islanders and has attended several games at the Nassau Coliseum. He’s also collaborated with Joe Iconis, a Garden City native and Tony nominated composer of the musical “Be More Chill.”
Penca, 27, started performing in 2006. He studied musical theater at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio, but says he didn’t fully catch the theater bug until he was working on summer stock shows in Vermont. “I thought, ‘Here are real, professional actors, people who gave their lives to the theater,’” he said.
Everything changed after that. “It was the only real thing I was good at,” said Penca with a grin.
Some of his past credits include the frustrated, misunderstood teen Moritz in “Spring Awakening” and the first-class ship designer in “Titanic: The Musical.” He previously played Johnny Cash in a production of “Million Dollar Quartet” in Weston, Vermont.
Penca felt he was ready to take on the character because of his musical upbringing. The Beatles served as his gateway into a whirlwind of iconic discography. There, he discovered some of his favorite Cash tunes: “A Boy Named Sue” and “Folsom Prison Blues.”
“So when it came time to sit down and learn the part, I knew all of it,” Penca said while getting ready in his dressing room. It was the last weekend of performances at the Argyle.
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James Penca here performing his favorite song of the show: “Folsom Prison Blues.” Penca says he draws upon the parallels of the script during his performance, factoring in how Cash feels trapped at his current record label while singing about being in prison. “It’s so overwhelming to do an impersonation of someone everyone knows, because every facet of the performance, everyone has a reference for it,” said Penca. #dayinthelifeli
His warm-up routine is pretty relaxed — in fact, he says minimal preparation is best for this role. “The less I take care of myself, the better I sound,” he said with a laugh. “I could wake up at 5 a.m. and do the whole show from my bed, and sound amazing.”
But the rehearsal process was another story. Penca says this is the hardest he’s ever worked on a character, but it became the easiest one to play.
“It’s so overwhelming to do an impersonation of someone everyone knows,” he said. “Because every facet of the performance, everyone has a reference for it.”
Penca has been playing the guitar for just as long as he’s been pursuing theater, and says he essentially had to reteach himself how to play in order to hold his instrument the way Cash did: up high and outstretched to the left. “It took forever to learn,” he noted.
Even the way Cash held his pick differed from what Penca does. While Penca strums by pinching the pick and letting his other fingers relax, Cash held his in a closed fist. “That took weeks to perfect.”
Along with those physical mannerisms, Penca spent plenty of time perfecting perhaps the most important and intimidating part of the role: the voice. He said “thankfully” the singing came easy, since he already has those signature low notes in his range. But Cash’s specific Arkansas accent lent itself to some in depth practice.
Penca scoured YouTube for videos of Cash giving interviews, and focused on the way he said specific words, like “school,” and pronounced certain letters: whistle S’s, hard R’s. He also watched him singing just to get a sense of his rowdy stage persona, as perhaps most notably seen in his prison performances.
“The hardest thing was — and this took the entire rehearsal process until the day before opening — was singing so far forward in the nose, or mask,” Penca said.
But he kept working at it. By the time opening night came around, he felt ready. And by the time the final weekend of performances came around, he was already thinking about what parts of Cash he’d focus on next, when he plays the role this summer in another production in Gainesville, Florida.
“Next, I’m gonna work on the accent more,” Penca said.
Those moments in the shadows before “Blue Suede Shoes” begins were some of Penca’s favorite times on stage. Looking out into the audience, he would reflect. “I’ll always think, ‘I’m doing theater and being paid to do it,’” he said. “And it’s great taking in that moment.”
Penca delivered showstopping performances of Cash classics all night long, including his personal favorite, “Folsom Prison Blues.” Penca says he uses that time to really sink into character, drawing parallels between the lyrics and Cash’s current predicament of feeling trapped by his record label.
Dressed head to toe in black — “Looks like you’re going to a funeral,” Vivian Cash told her husband in the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line” — Penca commands the stage with a quiet gravitas that can’t be rehearsed. Even when his Cash is playing the straight man to the likes of charmer Presley and rambunctious Jerry Lee, his stoic presence looms and lingers from the sidelines. He was met with hardy applause after his rendition of “I Walk The Line” in Act Two.
No matter where Johnny Cash takes him, at the Argyle Theatre, the Cleveland native seemed right at home.