ring of fire

From left, Justin Dehmer, Melissa King, Angela Jenson-Frey, Jon Hickerson and Moira Mangiameli make up the “Ring of Fire” cast.

Director Gordon Cantiello has a knack for choosing material that fits the tight confines of his Performing Arts Repertory Theatre, which is snuggled in a bay at the mostly empty Crossroads Mall.

The latest example is “Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash,” which runs through Sunday.

It follows other biographical shows such as “Always, Patsy Cline” and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” about tortured blues artist Billie Holiday. But unlike those shows, no one person portrays the central character and there’s not much dialogue. Instead, it features a somewhat chronological stream of Cash’s hits tied to seminal events in his life. They’re performed by a cast of five: Justin Dehmer, Jon Van-Horn Hickerson, Angela Jenson-Frey, Melissa King and Moira Mangiameli.

That worked for me. Johnny Cash was so iconic and larger than life that it would be a challenge for any community theater to cast that role.

The music lineup is an engaging mix of songs everyone knows (“Folsom Prison Blues,” “Walk the Line”) and some that were obscure, at least to me (“Straight As in Love,” “Egg Suckin’ Dog”). It encompassed every genre Cash conquered: country, blues, gospel, novelty songs, pop tunes and more.

The performers were equally engaging, and they each sang pieces that seemed made for their varied talents. Mangiameli, for instance, comically channeled Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl on “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” and was wonderful on “Old Rugged Cross” with Hickerson and King. Hickerson, meanwhile, offered an evocative version of “Sunday Morning, Coming Down” that was linked to Cash’s struggle with addiction. King accompanied herself on the piano as she sadly and passionately sang “I Still Miss Someone,” and Dehmer’s “Man in Black” was a heartfelt and more-than-credible cover of one of Cash’s signature songs.

And Jenson-Frey, with her gorgeous, operatic and versatile soprano voice, was a crowd favorite whenever she sang.

“That’s a Broadway voice,” raved the guy sitting next to me.

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You also can credit much of the show’s success to the five-member band, led by amazing keyboard expert Jennifer Novak Haar.

All that said, the performance wasn’t perfect.

For me, “A Boy Named Sue” lacked energy and buy-in. (I suspect, however, that in my heart of hearts, I’m pretty sure nobody but Cash should sing that song.)

And the small venue, so great for intimacy and relating to the actors, had its drawbacks. On a relatively tiny stage, less has to be more when you’re planning a show with five performers and five band members with several instruments. At times, they tried to do too much, especially when they shuffled across the stage to get props such as washboards (which they played) and banjos (which seemed to be for decoration only, and I would have eliminated them).

I also would have figured out some way to fit in a couple of real trumpet players for “Ring of Fire,” because the fakey electronic piano “trumpets” just didn’t cut it. Some of the stage-left decorations could have been pared down, or the horn players could have been at the side of the stage.

Actual footage of Cash at varying points in his career, projected on a screen behind the stage, was a nice touch, however.

With the exception of Billy McGuigan’s shows at the Playhouse, no Omaha theater is doing the types of musical revues that PART offers on a regular basis. They’re a real plus on the local performing scene and, despite the foibles of dealing with a small space, they’re generally quality shows that most everyone can enjoy.

This one is worth your while, especially if you are a Cash fan.

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Betsie covers a little bit of everything for The World-Herald's Living section, including theater, religion and anything else that might need attention. Phone: 402-444-1267.

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