NEW YORK—One would never imagine such a weird premise for a musical. On the other hand, someone did. Written by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, “Ride the Cyclone” presents six teenagers who have already met their demise when the roller coaster they were riding in breaks apart in a freak accident, plunging them to their deaths.
This show, which originated in Canada and made its American debut in Chicago last year, is wild, witty, and weird. It’s a hoot, never letting down in energy and verve, as performed by most of its original, terrific cast.
The gifted group, presented as members of the St. Cassian Chamber Choir, are puzzled to find themselves in a sort of limbo land (a complex and evocative set by Scott Davis, which seems to be the backstage of a failed carnival).
The world is presided over by the Amazing Karnak (Karl Hamilton), seated in a small, dark booth, his dark eyes glowing, his deep voice resonating with threat and mystery. He is a mechanical fortune teller and can predict the dates of death of just about anyone—including himself.
He also possesses what seems to have a strange power: He can restore one of the group, and only one, to the land of the living. That one individual must pass severe tests devised by Karnak. Each is given the opportunity to make his case.
Taking over is the aggressive, all-A student Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau), who proceeds to bluster that “what the world needs is people like me,” and denigrates her companions. But when Karnak informs her that the winner must receive unanimous approval by the group, Ocean reverses her opinions. But it’s too late.
Karnak is completely unimpressed and immediately eliminates the now-crestfallen would-be superstar.
Needless to say, the participants’ statements are told in witty song and dance (terrific direction and choreography by Rachel Rockwell).
Although Ocean has pretty much skewered her alleged best friend, the Constance (Lillian Castillo), the shy girl later shows another side and takes over the proceedings.
Each character is awarded his or her place in the sun, so to speak, his or her personal aria. The Ukrainian-born Misha Bachinski (Gus Halper) begins by being an antisocial rapper but later softens when he speaks of his true love, his fiancée in the Ukraine, shown via video projections (on his telephone, Misha says), courtesy of Mike Tutaj (projection design).
Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), the only gay boy in the small Canadian town where the group hails from, displays a show-stopping rendition of his version of the late Marlene Dietrich in one of her sultriest roles. In this guise, Noel claims to have a “heart of black charcoal.”
Ricky Potts (Alex Wyse), though disabled and on crutches, here throws away his crutches (he is dead, after all) and goes on to display his real self—a prophet from another planet, where all life is evolved from cats. The entire cast is transformed into cat-like creatures and we’re treated to a miniature version of the famed “Cats” by Andrew Lloyd-Webber.
Last but not least, Jane Doe (Emily Rohm) has been so-named because in the accident she was decapitated, and thus her identity, as well as her head, has been lost. Actress Rohm does have a head, however, and a lovely operatic soprano voice to go with it. Moving with a rigid, staccato gait she appears doll-like, very like the character of Olympia in Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman.” She even executes a rather extraordinary feat by not only flying but twirling in the air. This must be seen!
In the end, Karnak makes his surprising decision, and all ends almost happily, as happily as one might expect under such odd circumstances.
What permeates the show, somewhat subtly, are themes of love and tolerance. It’s a tribute to the writers that such deep elements can come through what appears on the surface to be superficial entertainment. It is not, in my opinion. It has warmth and depth.
The fascinating and very satisfying show runs the gamut from tragedy to almost-farce. There’s a lot of poignancy, when one stops to think of what might have been if these young people had attained adulthood.
Performances are absolutely top-rate. Director Rockwell, based in Chicago where she has enjoyed notable success, has created a marvelous theatrical entity. Contributions by lighting designer Greg Hofmann and sound by Garth Helm are also major elements.
The show has been brought to New York by MCC Theater.
‘Ride the Cyclone’
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St.
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Dec. 29
Diana Barth writes for several arts publications, including New Milennium. She may be contacted at DiaBarth99@gmail.com