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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1. Aladdin: "Aladdin" grabs you from the moment the curtain rises on a stage filled with brilliant color. This show requires performers to be expert vocalists, athletic dancers and comic actors, and, for the most part, this touring cast is up to the challenge. Read more
2. Return to Niobrara: "Return to Niobrara," deals with issues that unfortunately are as pertinent today as they were when Chief Standing Bear sued General George Crook in the 1870s: human rights, racism and stereotypes, among others. It's undoubtedly one of the best shows of the past year. Read more
3. South Pacific: Despite a lack of scenery and trims to the script, this production of "South Pacific" had a lot of heart and energy. Read more
4. I and You: What a story "I and You" is, complete with an ending that stunned everyone in the premiere-night audience. And what a group of actors, directors, designers and technicians the theater has chosen to tell it. Read more
5. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is a raw, honest play, performed by actors who understand that. If you're used to rainbows and bluebirds, it will rattle you. But nonetheless, it is a worthwhile production. Read more
6. Of Mice and Men: "Of Mice and Men" is a faithful version of John Steinbeck's legendary novella, with a fine cast of actors, fabulous music evocative of the period and a theater space ideal for the 11-member cast. Read more
7. The Doll-Maker's Gift: "The Doll-Maker’s Gift" looks at the impact of pogroms on Russian Jews in the early 1900s. But it has more to say about kindness and hope, helping adults and children alike believe that the world may just hold more good people than bad. Read more
8. On Your Feet: There isn’t a dud in the cast of "On Your Feet." The touring musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan has lots of energy, a bit of heart and enormous appeal. Read more
9. The Bridges of Madison County: The story behind "The Bridges of Madison County" isn't any more compelling than it ever was. But the Playhouse show, with its first-rate vocal work, acting and production values, is undeniably stunning. Read more
10. Come From Away: "Come From Away" is a warm and witty look at the generosity of a Canadian town to stranded jet passengers during 9/11, and inspires one to be a more generous, caring person. Read more
11. One Man, Two Guvnors: "One Man, Two Guvnors" was ably directed, features a supporting cast every bit as special as the lead actor and captures the best of British comedy in a side-splitting production. Read more
12. Dragons Love Tacos: "Dragons Love Tacos" is aimed squarely at kids. It has an uncomplicated and somewhat repetitive kooky story that doesn’t move too fast. Though I found my mind wandering at times, I derived my joy from seeing the kids' reactions. Read more
13. Men on Boats: "Men on Boats" tells a historical story in an innovative way, and the direction and acting are superb. But figuring out the underlying message was a bit challenging. Read more
14. The Woodsman: "The Woodsman" is everything theater can be. It doesn't need elaborate or expensive embellishments or more than an hour and change to tell a warm, fully realized and absolutely irresistible story. Read more
15. Miss Saigon: "Miss Saigon" has some absolutely breathtaking music, and cast members of the touring Broadway show have some absolutely breathtaking voices. The show's subject matter is still relevant today, and it doesn't pull any punches. Read more
16. Ragtime: "Ragtime" offers a portrait of immigration that contradicts some of the narratives today. It's been my experience in this job that the Playhouse always saves its season-best for last. That's true again this year. Read more
17. She Rocks: Tara Vaughan's "She Rocks" is a tribute to several artists. Sometimes she hewed closely to an idol's original sound, and at other times she got a little crazy. Depending on the song, her voice can be somewhat slight and girlish, folksy and alternative, sexy and just plain powerful. Read more
18. Matilda: Actor Joey Galda is a stitch as the evil Miss Trunchbull in this stage version of Roald Dahl's "Matilda." The rest of the cast, including kids, is pretty special, too. It also has probably the best set I've seen all year. Read more
19. West Side Story: Omaha South High School is using profits from "West Side Story" toward building a visual and performing arts addition on the south end of its campus. The diverse, well-acted, timely production is proof that the money will be well-spent. Read more
20. Hamlet: With artful direction from John Hardy, the gender-reimagined cast in "Hamlet" seamlessly slipped into the text and the action. The actors and their characters transcended gender roles to illuminate human and political archetypes in a compelling way. Read more
21. Into the Woods: I left feeling like I had been there a tad too long and I wasn't too taken by the music in "Into the Woods." But despite my gut reactions, I still enjoyed the experience, particularly the top-notch performers and beautiful sets. Read more
22. Beauty and the Beast: A luminous Belle, buffoonish Gaston, extra-special orchestra and more make this production of "Beauty and the Beast" a good, old-fashioned celebration and a wonderful way to spend a summer night. Read more
23. Rock Twist: Billy McGuigan is so likable, such a good storyteller and such a great showman that despite a few sound deficits, we left the theater grinning and raving about this year's "Rock Twist." McGuigan is real, with a self-deprecating humor and no pretensions. He doesn't take himself too seriously. Read more
25. Sweat: A Pulitzer-winning script, performances and other details make the show an excellent (if hard to watch) season-opener. But lest you think this show is relentlessly depressing, it’s actually anything but. Strangely enough, I left "Sweat" feeling hope. Read more