“Ride the Cyclone” begins with six teenagers from the high school choir of a small Canadian town dying on a roller coaster called the Cyclone. Then, one by one, we hear their stories – or, more accurately, we get a show-stopping musical number out of each one of them.
If the musical feels largely derivative, it features an appealing, talented cast, a dozen witty, energetic songs in a variety of popular styles, and a spectacular design for such a small-scale show. Although the characters are dead, that doesn’t stop them from being fun and funny, albeit in a familiar way. Viewers might immediately think of “Glee,” or any number of peppy musical comedies.
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But I thought of Thornton Wilder.
Beneath all its jokiness and spirited (teen-scented) score, “Ride the Cyclone” seems to be trying to capture the mix of the unabashedly cornball and the cosmic that Wilder achieves in “Our Town,” with its theme of the importance of appreciating everyday life. But even more than “Our Town,” I thought of an earlier Wilder work, for which he won his first Pulitzer, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” a novel that begins with the death of five people crossing a bridge in Peru, and then backtracks to focus on each of the characters. In the novel, a Franciscan monk spends years studying the lives of these dead to try to answer the question – why were they the ones who died?
In place of the Franciscan monk, the creative team of “Ride the Cyclone” conjures up the Amazing Karnak, a mechanical fortune-telling machine common to old carnivals and last seen in the movie “Big.” Karnak (a convincingly spooky and robotic Karl Hamilton) knows when everybody will die, but he never tells those seeking their fortune at the carnival. (As he explains: “Being told the place and time of your death in front of your family, with a mouthful of corndog at a fairground, is the very opposite of fun.”) Feeling guilty that he didn’t warn the teenagers of their impending death, he has decided to hold a contest that will allow one of the teens to return to the living.
What are the rules of the contest? Karnak changes them arbitrarily from scene to scene (the fickleness of fate?)
The premise winds up being little more than the frame for a series of entertaining musical numbers. But the cast makes the most of them – demonstrating terrific skills not just in singing and dancing, but in forging strongly etched characters out of teenage archetypes.
(Their personalities are cleverly established from the get-go, in a song that reveals their reaction to the news that they are dead:
Mischa: Sex? Oh God, why did I wait?
Ocean: Now I’ll never graduate
Noel: I hope I wiped my browser clean.)
Kholby Wardell is memorable in his portrayal of Noel Gruber, “the only gay man in a small rural high school,” which, he says, “is kind of like having a laptop in the Stone Age. I mean sure you can have one, but there’s nowhere to plug it in.” A would-be French New Wave nihilist who aspired to be Marlene Dietrich in Blue Angel, he actually worked at Taco Bell. For his show-stopping number, he sings a sexy French song, as in a black lace negligee, imagining himself “a hooker with a heart of black charcoal.”
Gus Halper is hilarious and sexy as Mischa Bachinski, a Ukrainian immigrant who calls himself “best rapper in all of North Eastern Saskatchewan.”
Emily Rohm is haunting and ethereal (and a little creepy) as a teenager whose corpse was neither claimed nor identified: “Jane Doe is what the coroner said, They found my body, not my head.”
Alex Wyse, who was on Broadway in both Spring Awakening and Lysistrata Jones, is Ricky Potts, disabled in life by a degenerative disease, freed in death. He lets loose in a number imagining himself “a prophet from the Zolarian Starcluster, supreme leader of those that evolved from cats.”
Lillian Castillo is perfect as Constance, the nice girl everybody ignores, which makes her seethe – which anybody would notice if they noticed her at all. They definitely notice in her rousing number, which comes closest to driving home the Wilder-like themes.
And then there is Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg, an obnoxiously ambitious straight A, type A student. (Think Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry from Glee.) Even her supposedly supportive comments are irksome: “Some of us are left wing, some of us are right wing… but the last time I checked it takes two wings to fly!! We are community! We are Family! We are the World!” Yet she somehow manages to charm most of her classmates, grudgingly, as well as the audience.
Making her New York stage debut, Tiffany Tatreau is superb, all the more so for apparently taking over the part just a week ago, after Taylor Louderman, who had been cast as Ocean, announced on her Twitter feed that she was leaving “due to creative differences.”
Tatreau had played the part in the Chicago production, which was well received, as was its original productions in Canada. Now “Ride the Cyclone” has hit the big time – that’s the impression left from the spectacular stagecraft overseen by director Rachel Rockwell. Her design team has shoved into the Lucille Lortel, a small Off-Broadway house that customarily presents straight plays, the sort of imposing set, flashing lights, intricate and well-integrated projections and special effects that usually make up what I’ve previously catalogued as The Broadway Effect. One wonders: Is there more life in store for these lively dead characters?
Excerpts from the show begin at 14:46, at 28, and 39:30
Ride the Cyclone
MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel
Written and composed by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell
Directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell
Set design by Scott Davis, costume design by Theresa Ham, lighting design by Greg Hofmann, sound design by Garth Helm, projection design by Mike Tutaj, wig design by Leah J. Loukas
Cast: Lillian Castillo, Gus Halper, Karl Hamilton, Emily Rohm, Tiffany Tatreau, Kholby Wardell, Alex Wyse
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Ride the Cyclone is scheduled to run through December 18. I’ll be surprised if it’s not extended.