Sunday, November 01, 2015

Whoop de Loop: Macabre, Funny and Meaningful 'Ride the Cyclone' Provides Plenty of Irreverent Thrills -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Ride the Cyclone
an American premiere musical
Book, music and lyrics by
Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell
Directed by Rachel Rockwell
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Thru November 15

I have long joked that as far as I'm concerned, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater might as well be called the Chicago Sondheim Theater.

Not that the CST doesn't do right by the Bard, it's just that on its stages I've seen one play by its immortal namesake and all eight of its productions of works by the legendary composer/lyricist.

And I really only saw Julius Caesar because it was included in a single-season subscription package I bought to gain access to a Sondheim show.

Given how truly sublime CST's renditions of Sunday in the Park with George (twice), Follies, Gypsy, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Passion and Road Show have been--and seemingly well-sold--I don't know why Company, Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Merrily We Roll Along or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum haven't been staged this season or last.

Yet even sans Sondheim, what drew me to Navy Pier Thursday night wasn't Chicago Shakespeare's imaginative, acclaimed version of The Tempest, co-adapted and directed by Teller (of Penn & ...) and featuring music by Tom Waits--to be fair, my interest was piqued but the run is sold out--but another musical.

Abetted by a 4-star (out of 4) review by Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune--which is really the only way I heard about it--the musical Ride the Cyclone is also largely sold out for its now-extended run in the CST's upstairs theater.

But I was able to snag a single ticket--no HotTix or Goldstar discounts likely for this one--and though Ride the Cyclone doesn't match the depth, breadth and sophistication of Sondheim, it represents a first-rate foray by CST into producing new musicals, in this case one that should hold great appeal for young, nascent, even newfound musical theater fans.

It may take Ride the Cyclone going to off-Broadway, and then Broadway, before looping back through Chicago--and/or as Jones shrewdly suggests, settling into the Apollo, Mercury, Broadway Playhouse or other local home for a years-long Chicago run--before teens take it viral and begin to truly comprise large portions of the audience, but the show merits becoming a young-skewing touchstone akin to Spring Awakening, The 30th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Hairspray, Wicked and Rent (not that it's qualitatively quite on that level, yet).

But what is this exciting, excellent new musical about?, you may wonder nine paragraphs into this review.

In a nutshell, it's about six members of a high school choir who are suddenly killed when a fairgrounds roller coaster runs off the rails, within a small Canadian town named Uranium.

Yet while the show reminds in various ways of many works of theater, TV, film and more, despite having creators that are likewise Canadian, Ride the Cyclone really isn't highly reminiscent of Atom Egoyan's terrific 1997 film, The Sweet Hereafter, which chronicles a small town coping with a tragic school bus accident.

For Ride the Cyclone isn't about the town, families, aftermath, survivors, culpability, investigations or litigation. It is solely about the victims, and much more about how they lived--and what they individually aspired to--than how they died.

The show's central conceit is that its sole "adult," actually a mechanized fortune teller named The Amazing Karnac (adroitly embodied by Karl Hamilton), has the power to bring one of the victims back to life.

Imparting that the chosen one must be universally elected by their peers, he implores each of the teens to sing about his or her life and why it should continue, in an attempt to convince the other victims to vote for their sole survival.

Given the concept involving a choir and tribal voting, a promo piece for Ride the Cyclone--which has enjoyed popularity in Canada over the last few years but is getting its American premiere at CST under the direction of Rachel Rockwell--cites the Globe and Mail suggesting "It's Glee meets Survivor" as a primary acclamation.

Yet given the way the characters reveal unique, compelling and heretofore secret aspects of themselves in their songs and spoken introductions, I much more so found myself thinking of The Breakfast Club, A Chorus Line and The 30th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee--the latter probably being the show's closest musical theater comparison and antecedent.

Ukrainian-born Mischa (Russell Mernagh) imagines himself a gangster rapper with a gentle side, the gay-in-an-oppressive-community Noel (Kholby Wardell) channels Marlene Dietrich within his French cabaret act, handicapped Ricky Potts (Jackson Evans) unleashes his inner David Bowie, etc., etc.

Each of the character's songs, or in some cases a couple, musically reflects his or her own individuality, and the melange of styles by composer/lyricists (and also book writers) Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell reminded me of the musical pastiche that defined Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Though certainly rather macabre--one of the characters has been decapitated, and with no known backstory, engages eerily as Jane Doe (Emily Rohm)--the quirky, cheeky musical is not very morbid nor maudlin. In some ways, it's even surprisingly uplifting, for as Richmond explains in an interview in the show program, his and Maxwell's inspiration derived from:
"...the idea of someone being a statistic in a mass tragedy [and] how hard it is to wrap your head around what their individual lives meant. [Ride the Cyclone is] about humanizing the idea of a mass tragedy, which in truth contains hundreds of stories that are interrupted."
While the concept is richer than first blush might suggest, getting the tone right is obviously essential, and director Rockwell--for years one of Chicagoland's best and, in my estimation, destined to follow CST's Sondheim director Gary Griffin to national prominence--well-balances the execution over 90 minutes.

And the performers are all first-rate.

In enjoying Lillian Castillo as chubby yet cheerful Constance Blackwood, I couldn't help think that she would make a perfect Tracy Turnblad, the lead character in Hairspray. Turns out, I saw her play the role, terrifically, in 2012 at Drury Lane Oakbrook.

Jackson Evans is quite good as Ricky, as he was as Princeton last year in Avenue Q at the Mercury Theatre, and Emily Rohm, who was really good as Cosette in Les Misérables at Drury Lane last year (also directed by Rockwell), is spooktacular as Jane Doe.

Kholby Wardell, who has played Noel in every Ride the Cyclone production to date, clearly has made the role his own (while reminding a bit of Bill Hader), and Russell Mernagh is good as Mischa.

And though this was obviously my first time seeing this show, and her first Chicago credit after graduating from the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, Tiffany Tatreau seems pretty perfect as Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg, the choir's controlling overachiever.

If this show does go to New York, there's no reason the whole cast shouldn't head east.

Though the songs all serve the show well, few stand out in memory just a few days later, but I can cite Rohm's moving take on "The Ballad of Jane Doe," Castillo's inspiring "Sugarcloud" and the show closing "Ride."

I also liked the use of the Ohio Players' "Rollercoaster" before the performance began.

So even with a rather grim premise, Ride the Cyclone is a really fun ride. And though it reminds of several other works, it nonetheless feels fresh enough to delight longstanding musical lovers--and, theoretically, many new ones.

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