I attended the opening night of Rave On Productions Ring of Fire at The Waiting Room Lounge last night. This is part of Rave On’s “Omaha Series” where they have performances run in local venues. The production company also sends shows out around the country. Ring of Fire is a jukebox musical based on the music of Johnny Cash. There is no plot line, but it instead hits key points in Cash’s career and includes the cast speaking dialogue about his life, which sounds like it is from Cash’s autobiography. The show is very light on dialogue and heavy on music. Covered are the early roots, Sun Records, Folsom Prison, the Opry, meeting June, gospel, and more.
Playing the role of Johnny Cash is longtime Omaha musician Benn Sieff, who has in recent years added acting to his resume in various roles, including pretty much becoming this generation’s Frank N’ Furter around Omaha as he has performed in multiple productions of The Rocky Horror Show. I have been watching Benn perform for decades now, as I used to watch him in local bands when I was in high school and throughout my adult life. I worked with him on the early versions of Bennie and the Gents, the glam rock tribute act that performs on Omaha stages. While I was confident that Sieff would be able to do this part, knowing him for so long and seeing him mostly perform in garters and corsets this past decade, it was something I needed to see to wrap my head around.
When the performers took to the stage, they performed an overture, teasing songs that would be performed throughout the evening. This built tension for the most important moment in the show. How well Sieff would deliver the “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” line would possibly make or break the crowd’s engagement from the start. He nailed it to much applause and maybe a few breaths of relief as the crowd knew that Benn would be able to hold the role for the next couple hours of their lives. Benn is a towering figure, and with him booming his voice Cash style, he was still able to bring out the calm, gentle, and reflective side of Cash in his performance. Vocally, he had the Cash inflection down, is a prolific guitar player, and is able to handle that part with ease. Last night, he was Johnny Cash.
Angela Jenson Frey was just as much a part of the show, playing the Vivian Liberto and June Carter roles on stage. She has many theater credits and helped tie in the theatrical element of the performance with energetic movement and facial expressions, sometimes with more dramatic tones. Vocally, she brought June’s sometimes humorous performance style to life on stage, down to the yodeling. She also had gorgeously somber musical moments when reflecting on the harm that Cash’s lifestyle caused her characters. She is an incredible vocalist and was just as much the star of the show last night as Sieff.
Omaha musicians and actors Jay Hanson, Matthew McGuigan, Aaron Slagle, Brandon Bakke and Jay Srygley rounded out the band and supported it with lines and interaction with Sieff and Jenson-Frey. Srygley particularly stood out with his straight-forward performances of country classics that looked like they were performed with ease and like they were second nature to him.
The show flows through songs without much stopping or starting, and the timing of the musicians and the performers to swirl all of that around is amazing and fascinating to watch. They did the Cash songs wonderfully, but with them all getting turns doing songs and vocals, the music ends up being more about country music and culture from that era than a Johnny Cash tribute show, which for me is more interesting as I can see Cash tributes multiple times a year.
There is another performance tonight at the Waiting Room and the next two Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets can be found here. One note: if you attend, the comfortable booths by the windows may seem like a great option, but I would sit in the chairs in the middle that they provide. You will miss some of the performers in your line of sight if you sit in the booths.