BWW Review: RING OF FIRE; THE MUSIC OF JOHNNY CASH at Performing Artists Repertory Theatre (PART)
I wholly love the feel of PART. The Performing Artists Repertory Theatre (PART) in the Crosswoods Mall is small, intimate, and entirely different from most Omaha theaters. You can sit at a table for four, make a couple of new friends, and enjoy performances without a lot of folderol. Everything is simple, tasteful, and essential. That means that the performers have to bring it all. And they do.
Five experienced singer-actors take the spotlight in this jukebox musical based on the music of the legendary Johnny Cash. Conceived by William Meade, this work was created by Richard Maltby, Jr. who stressed that he had no notion of dramatizing Johnny Cash's life nor imitating his style. There is no plot or definitive story line. Instead, it is a compilation of Cash's well known songs interspersed with snippets of biographical detail.
RING OF FIRE lived a short life on Broadway. Even with such notables as Beth Malone (FUN HOME) and Jarrod Emick, the musical fell short of box office goals. Critics wrote that the musical fit better in a smaller venue. That is one reason it works so well at PART. What is slightly confusing to me is the characterization of the performers. Whereas the Broadway version featured three couples, Director Gordon Cantiello staged this piece with five singer-actors who ambiguously at times serve up the songs. No one is Johnny Cash. Everyone is Johnny Cash.
Justin Dehmer, the most Johnny Cash-like character in the show, shines for several reasons. He has the appearance. Even if it wasn't the intent to reproduce Cash on stage, it helps to visually associate the performer with the man. Dehmer has the emotional depth. He delivers an evocative performance as the "Man in Black." He has the gravel in his voice, which works well for this music.
Angela Jensen-Frey lights up the stage with her smile and fills the house with her clear, sure soprano. Paired with smooth-toned Jon Hickerson, "If I Were a Carpenter" stands out. Jensen-Frey's real life husband, Michael Frey, adds a heavenly dash of strings to the piece and it couldn't be more beautiful. The Jenson-Frey and Hickerson duet in "Ring of Fire" is undeniably a crowd favorite along with "Folsom Prison Blues," which features Dehmer, Hickerson, and Mangiameli. These, some of the best loved of Johnny's hits, elicit an instantaneous audience participation. Everyone loves to clap along.
A few of Cash's titles are not on my "love this song" list. "Egg Suckin' Dog" "and "Delia's Gone" may be written to be comical, but they don't appeal to my sense of humor. Neither does "Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart," although Moira Mangiameli puts a humorous spin on it with a Minnie Pearl hat and a fair attempt at a yodel. She earns genuine audience appreciation for her down-home persona.
Melissa King stole my heart in "I Still Miss Someone" accompanying herself on the piano. I don't remember that song, but it is beautiful and King does it justice. Her duet with Mangiameli in "Sweet Bye and Bye" delights with sweet harmony.
Hickerson delivers a moving rendition of "Sunday Morning Coming Down" with a very sobering photo of Johnny Cash projected onto a side screen. The instrumental accompaniment is equal to Hickerson's pleasant vocals. The band members- music director Jennifer Novak Haar on keys, Michael Frey on fiddle/mandolin, Colin Duckworth on guitar/dobro, Ben Eisenberger on guitar/vocals, Brandon Armstrong on drums, and Mark Haar on bass are true professionals. Last night's performance was only the third time running through and it sounded as if they'd been together for weeks.
For my top pick of the evening, I loved "Going to Memphis" with Dehmer, Hickerson, Mangiameli, and King as members of the chain gang. My favorite song? "Why Me, Lord?" which sums up Johnny's entire life. Here was a man who wore black in support of all the oppressed, repressed, depressed people of the country; who slipped into drugs, fell in love, and found redemption. It's a story worth telling.
Johnny Cash fans will adore this production. Those unfamiliar with the Man in Black will appreciate it. Gordon Cantiello has another show that will follow in the footsteps of his wildly popular "Always, Patsy Cline." Expect to see this one "All Over Again."
Performances: AUG 10, 15, 16, 17 at 7:00 pm and AUG 10, 11, 17, and 18 at 2:00 pm.
7400 Dodge St, Omaha.
Tickets: (402) 706-0778 or www.performingartistsrepertorytheatre.org
Photo credit: Jennifer Novak Haar