5/11/2019      RIDE THE CYCLONE                       Alliance Theatre

*****  ( A+ )  

LIVING YOUR BEST LIFE

Welcome to Ride the Cyclone, with book, music, and lyrics by Jacob Richman and Brooke Maxwell.

 

In a small mining town in Saskatchewan ("Uranium"), a roller coaster accident kills five members of the St. Cassian High School Chamber Choir (they came in 2nd in a competition with no other entrants).  They find themselves in a side show purgatory, ruled over by Karnack, a mechanical fortune teller that can predict the moment of anyone's death, including its own (and it's rapidly approaching).  Feeling generous, it decrees that one of the students will get their life back.  Of course its "rules" change at will, or are revealed a beat too late (for example, the "winner" must be voted unanimously" rule comes after one of them has already sung "What the World Needs," an anthem to her own exceptionality and the others' "lesser" lives.  Karnack is in "Family Fun" mode, of course.

 

What follows is a series of monologues and songs in which the five kids -- and the stranger with them -- sing about their lives and hopes and dreams. 

 

I didn't mention the stranger?  Sorry.  Jane Doe is a very odd creature, a contemporary of the others, also wearing a choir uniform.  No one knows her, 

and her decapitated  body was never claimed after the accident.  She also has no memory.  Best guess is she was the new kid recruited by the choir master just prior to the accident, the choirmaster who has since died before he could identify the mysterious sixth victim.

 

If this sounds a bit morbid, a bit contrived, a bit why-would-I-want-to-see-this-?, rest assured, it is all of those things.  But it is also full-tilt-Gonzo, hysterically funny, and ultimately, moving in a can't-catch-my-breath way.  And yes, you DO want to see it.

 

This play began life in Victoria, British Columbia in 2008, where it was just a cabaret with no story.  It moved to Toronto in 2011 where it picked up an imaginative director (the late Rachel Rockwell) who had the writers add the story and continuity.  It was reportedly, very dark ("Canadians like dark").  The show finally hit the states (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in 2015, and Off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel Theatre in 2016), with a kinder, gentler, warmer feeling ("Americans don't like it so dark") where it picked up almost universal raves.  And now, it hits Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, with many of its cast intact -- Atlanta's Chaz Duffy is the only local actor added for this ride -- and, strangely enough, they are all convincing 17-year-olds, despite having played these roles for more than ten years.

 

So, who are these kids and why should we care about their small-town Canadian lives?  Well, we should care because they are teenagers, going through all the same hormone-driven emotional maelstroms we all remember (no matter how hard we try to forget).  They are all aggravating and endearing in equal measure, just like our own kids. And their stories reveal an understanding and appreciation for all the minutiae of a life well-lived, even if it's only for 17 years.  And it ends with a scratchy Super-8 film of the "winner's" new life, from birth to death, showing that their choice did lead to a life well-lived.  It's a remarkably upbeat ending for a musical about dead kids.

 

Oh, yeah, who are they?  Well, there's Ocean, the over-achiever, the one who has to make all the right choices for all her own best interests.  There's her best friend Constance, who is soooo pissed that she has spent her whole nowhere life in this nowhere town and soooo pissed she is always selected as "the nicest one."  There's Noel, the "only gay kid in Uranium City" who dreams of being Marlene Dietrich.  Or a prostitute in Post-WWII Paris.  There's Mischa, the tough immigrant kid from the Ukraine, who likes rap, but has a soft spot for his on-line girl-friend, Nadia.  There's Ricky, the crippled kid, the one who could not talk while alive but is now able to give full voice to his fertile imagination.  And there's Jane Doe, who ... well no one knows who exactly Jane Doe is, least of all herself.

 

And they all get their chance to sing (and soliloquize) about themselves in a memorable score that includes ballads, anthems, doo-wop, pop ear candy, hip-hop (well, as hip-hop as a Canadian songwriter can get) rapturous love songs, and even a dose of good old fantasy (Ricky's "Space Aged Bachelor Man," which combines every nerdy introvert's love of superheroes, and exotic sexual activity.  Like I said - this show is Gonzo!).  My favorite has to be Constance's "Sugar Cloud," which perfectly expresses her new-found love of small-town life -- even though it happens as she's hurtling upside-down to her death, three hours after losing her virginity "in the ugliest way possible.

 

"All these images came flooding into me -- Getting back into bed and feeling the warmth from my own body.  Hanging upside down from the monkey bars until my head starts to tingle.  Smelling Jiffy Markers.  Putting glue on your fingers and chewing it off. Listening to music and dancing around my room before going out to a party, and pretending I'm going to have a perfect time. Finishing an essay.  Undoing a knot.  Pizza Night.  Halloween.  Watching my baby brother dance naked to ABBA." 

 

It's enough to make you appreciate that even the sorriest little life is full of detail and incident and wonder.  And, of course, musicals that move you in so many ways no matter how often you watch them.

 

As I said, most of this cast (Lillian Castillo as Constance, Tiffany Tatreau as Ocean, Emily Rohm as Jane Doe, Karl Hamilton as Karnack -- yes, there IS an actor behind that mechanitron, and Khoulby Wardell as Noel.  All still come across as teenagers, all make their performances seem as if they're doing it for the first time.  Newcomers Chaz Duffy (Misha) and Scott Redmond (Ricky) fit in perfectly, and the entire ensemble runs as smoothly as an amusement park carousel.

 

The show comes with most of its original creative team.  Mos impressive is Scott Davis' Scene Design (a definite Side Show Purgatory filled with strange shapes, dark corners, and a  broken rail dangling overhead, a constant reminder of "how we got here").  Also deserving praise are Theresa Ham's constantly morphing costumes, and Mike Tutaj's clever and intricate projections, which recreate Super-8 videography.  The director is credited as Leora Morris, who, it is said, endeavored to pay homage to Rachel Rockwell's original staging, but adding moments of her own and keeping the performances alive and rocking.  Did I mention that Jane Doe gets to fly (and spin) during her song, "The Ballad of Jane Doe?"  Like I said -- Full Tilt Gonzo!

 

Ride the Cyclone is an unabashed ode to the joys of being alive, being young, and making the right choices.  It is a tuneful wallow in extremes of emotions (the old rollercoaster metaphor, if you will), and in the eccentricities of the imagination without losing sight of the attraction of the mundane.

 

It is a definitely worth the ride!

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #AllianceTheatreRideTheCyclone)

 

Note -- since this show has been around for over ten years, there are numerous You Tube videos (Authorized and not), many featuring members of this cast.  For an in-depth discussion of the show with its creator (and original director Rachel Rockwell), try https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pol0asE7bLU.  For the record, Constance's monologue and "Sugar Cloud" are at the 39:25 mark.

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