BWW Review: RIDE THE CYCLONE at Jungle
I'm all for efforts to create new ensemble musicals in tune with our times. RIDE THE CYCLONE was composed in 2008 by Canadian artists Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, played at the Toronto Fringe Festival, and has bumped across Canada and the US (including New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Seattle) since then, collecting a fan club as it goes. Funny and tuneful, it has a dark but intriguing premise, a theatrically spooky setting, and some strong musical moments. I just wish it traded less on tired stereotypes. Warning: spoilers ahead.
Here's the set up: Six teenagers, all members of a high school show choir from a small town in Canada, have been killed in a freak accident on a rollercoaster known as the Cyclone. They find themselves in limbo; here, a warehouse packed haphazardly with carnival equipment, all of which is kinda creepy. There, they meet Karnak (Jim Lichtscheidl), a mechanical fortuneteller in a box (yep, like the one in the current TV ad shilling for insurance). He knows his own demise is imminent, when a rat will finish eating through the cable powering him up, causing its electrocution and his end. Before then, he proposes a game with a big prize: each chorister can tell their story and one of them will be chosen to return to the world of the living.
Thus begins a 90 minute succession of individuals singing for their lives. These sung identity monologues are backed harmonically by the rest of the group while they perform frenetic and frequently clever choreography (also by Lichtscheidl, a multitalented regular around the Twin Cities in a wide variety of roles). The whole is accompanied by a live four piece band known as Virgil & The Underworlds led by music director and keyboardist Mark Christine. They are tucked into a corner of the small Jungle stage.
For characters, we get Ocean (Shinah Brashears), the popular blonde who's sure she's the most deserving of the bunch. Constance (Gabrielle Dominique), Ocean's sidekick, the overweight girl in glasses who is feistier than she usually lets on. MIscha (Michael Hanna), the Ukrainian immigrant whose swagger hides a romantic fantasy life. Ricky (Jordan Leggett), the invalid who has the ability to speak and dance restored in death. And Noel (Josh Zwick), a lonely queer kid who'd like to channel Greta Garbo.
And then there's number 6: a Jane Doe whose identity is unknown for a grisly reason. Played with consistently creepy baby doll physicality and sung with absolute command, this is the show-stealer part, and Becca Hart runs away with it. She's certainly the most riveting in this ensemble, which is partly due to her talents and partly due to the show's book.
The Jungle is the first regional theater to win the rights to create an original production of RIDE THE CYCLONE. Director Sarah Rasmussen cares about making Jungle a place all are welcome at the same time she propels her theater to national importance. In keeping with these aims, she is personally both accessible and ambitious.
Rasmussen weaves together the skillful work of a strong design team for RIDE THE CYCLONE. Chelsea Warren is responsible for the seedy scenic visuals, into which she tucks a bunch of opportunities for the projection designs of Kathy Maxwell. Regular fogging from above enables Marcus Dilliard to provide shafts of dusty light, which never interfere with the projections. Costume designer Trevor Bowen has invented lots of quick add-ons that kick up the humor of the parochial school uniform base costumes. And the wig and makeup design by Paul Bigot are essential to Hart's performance as Jane.
The score is often rap-inflected and includes at least one 'message' choral finale, encouraging us to make the best of our lives the first time around. I wager this show will collect a local following and also leave some audience members a little non-plussed. Playwright Maxwell has described the tone of the piece as both vaudevillian and Ionesco-like, and that's a flavor combination new to most of us!
RIDE THE CYCLONE runs at the Jungle in Uptown Minneapolis through October 20.
Photo credit: Dan Norman