Review: RIDE THE CYCLONE At Arena Stage

Ride the Cyclone, directed by Sarah Rasmussen, is presented through February 19 at The Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage.

By: Jan. 23, 2023
Review: RIDE THE CYCLONE At Arena Stage

You may not have heard of Ride The Cyclone before it came to Washington's Arena Stage, where it's currently eliciting cheers from delirious audiences, but lots of other people have. It's a maturing cult classic for sure, having percolated for 15 years out there, beginning as a cabaret, emerging as a true musical, and passing through many productions (though never professionally in New York past a short Off-Broadway run). The script has also generated many successive versions over the years, in which songs have been swapped and characters changed. Through all these changes, a community of supporters has sprung up who keep coming back. If this is all reminding you of Rocky Horror, you're not wrong, but it is very much its own show.

So, what kind of show is it? Ah, that would be telling! No, really. What goes on in Ride the Cyclone is extremely hard to be certain of, a fact that I became uncomfortably aware of when I started to write this, and found that I kept stopping at sentences and asking myself: Wait, is that really true? Isn't there evidence in the show which contradicts it? Frequently the answer is yes, and, as I soon discovered, there's a community of fans who debate these issues with scholarly fascination. But I still have to write this review, so I'll just have to add this caveat which you, dear reader, do hereby acknowledge before reading further applies to everything I write below: I could be wrong. (Humbling though it is for a theater critic to have to admit.)

Well, then. At a specific date and time which might (or, ya know, might not) be 6:19 p.m. on September 14th, 2009 a group of six members of the Chamber Choir at St. Cassian School in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, perish when a roller coaster on which they are riding, the eponymous Cyclone, goes off the rails. The entryway to the afterlife in which they find themselves, "a dilapidated warehouse in Uranium City," is presided over by The Amazing Karnak, a relentlessly sardonic mechanical fortune teller (Marc Geller) apparently stored (but oddly plugged in) in The Warehouse. Karnak is in the business of predicting the date and time of people's deaths, including his own, the latter being set to occur later on September 14 and before the end of the play. Karnak keeps amending the rules for the others as he announces the ordeal that awaits these six unfortunates. One unchanged rule is that one of them, and only one, can return to the land of the living, if and only if they all unanimously vote for that person to return. (In effect, that character will be voted onto the island!) So each of these candidates for revivification gets the opportunity to plead his or her case.

First up is Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg (Shinah Hey), the class compulsive overachiever and bully, more Tracy Flick, perhaps, than Regina George, but class bully nonetheless. Her thesis, at least originally, is that she was building a really outstanding life, and therefore is worthy to have it restored to her. Fittingly, she learns in the afterlife that her new and potentially biggest challenge is now putting others first.

Next is Noel Gruber (Nick Martinez), the only gay boy in town, which he likens to having a computer in the Stone Age: "Nowhere to plug it in." He brings down the house in the course of enacting his drag fantasy of being a Continental cabaret dancer, living passionately, and dying tragically - instead of the Taco Bell worker he is in real life. ("Noel's Lament/That F#@&ed Up Girl".) Dawn correctly diagnoses the anomaly in the performance ("Every Story's Got a Lesson"), which is that there's no moral (ergo no case for resurrection), but the audience knows that in the music hall universe of this show a bravura song-and-dance number is all the moral a singer requires.

We hear then from Mischa (Eli Mayer), and his yearning for two things (it would seem): rap with heavy Auto-Tune and his Ukrainian e-mail beloved, complete with a dreamily-filmed wedding fantasy ("This Song Is Awesome" and "Talia"). The rap, at least, is real, a comically standard-issue evocation of all his imagined bling topped off with a flight back to Kyiv. (Possible spoiler alert: the beloved seems to exist only in Mischa's cellphone and could well be a budding romance scam. Much scholarly debate to be found on these questions.) Presumably the argument for his being brought back to life is that he should be vouchsafed a chance to realize his fantasies.

Next up: Ricky (Matthew Boyd Snyder), the quietest character. Why? Not clear. Disability status? It apparently varies depending on which production you see. In this rendering, it seems to be downplayed. Either way, he presents as being in the grip of a hilariously sexualized superhero cat fetish. And singing about it with the aid of his colleagues ("Space Age Bachelor Man") transforms him into a prophet of love and toleration. There's only one commandment in his bible: "Don't be a dick." Which certainly renders him a candidate at least for canonization in my book, and very likely for revival.

There has been one character unrecognized by anyone, a girl who died decapitated and hence faceless in the roller coaster disaster, identified only as Jane Doe (Ashlyn Maddox). Her missing head is replaced with a creepy doll's head (is there any other kind?) topped with stiff blonde hair, atop a neck usually at a slight angle, and finished off with glassy eyes. (See the photo above, with Mischa in the background.) To augment the oddness, she walks with an unusual gait. But under the correct circumstances, as, for instance, when she sings "The Ballad of Jane Doe," she certainly can gyrate, not to mention cranking out some near-operatic singing. Not only can't the others identify Jane Doe, but she (lacking her own head) evidently can't access her own memories. It's as if, functionally, she had had no life at all, which might possibly be a clue to how the little competition to be brought back to life will be resolved.

The last contestant, Constance (Gabrielle Dominique), is at the opposite end of the spectrum. While outwardly in some ways the least illustrious of the group, she has had, on her last day, a most vivid (if compressed) life ("Jawbreaker/Sugarcloud"). Arguably she needs no further living.

And then it's decision time, leaving those left behind with the real moral of the story about life: "It's Just A Ride."

The moral of this review, on the other hand, is obviously: Go See It! Join the enthralled cult! It's for anyone who was ever a theater or choir kid. It's for anyone who ever had a sexuality of any flavor whatsoever, or just even an inner life. It's for the frustrated amateur metaphysician in each of us. And it is certainly for the amateur detective in each of us; the creators, Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, have sprinkled clues and non sequiturs everywhere for us to ponder.

This production was produced in association with Princeton's McCarter Theatre Center, where it first appeared eight months ago featuring a mostly different cast helmed by the same director, Sarah Rasmussen. My understanding is that the production, Rasmussen's first as artistic director there, had been long delayed by the pandemic. Some things were clearly worth the wait.

The show's excellent script and score might make it look easy, but looks can deceive. Cyclone also calls for great acting, dancing and singing from the cast, and poses any number of technical and logistical challenges to the rest of the artistic team that takes it on. Tips of the hat, then, to all the consummate acting professionals I've already cited by name, but I also want to briefly mention set designer Scott Davis, costume designer Trevor Bowen, lighting designer Jiyoun Chang, sound designer André Pluess (any time these aged ears can pick out every word in a musical, I know I'm in good hands), projection designer Katherine Freer, and hair, wig and makeup designer J. Jared Janas.

It's just a ride!

Ride the Cyclone, book, music and lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, directed by Sarah Rasmussen, presented through February 19 at The Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, D.C. 20024. Tickets $66-125 subject to various discounts at . Vulgar language, sexual situations.

Photo Credit: Margot Schulman.