Review: USF School of Theatre & Dance Presents the Cult Favorite RIDE THE CYCLONE

Arrive Early! Ends Sunday, Oct. 1st at 3:00 PM!

By: Sep. 30, 2023
Review: USF School of Theatre & Dance Presents the Cult Favorite RIDE THE CYCLONE

“This musical may involve [the] presentation of ideas that you find uncomfortable, disagreeable, or even offensive. You may judge the characters. In fact, you’re supposed to. You might find them wanting. Humans often are.” --from the RIDE THE CYCLONE preshow announcement

Rarely has so much buzz surrounded a college theatre production.  Even a drama teacher friend of mine from Vermont mentioned over the phone that he had heard all about it from his former students.  I had known for quite some time that the dark, quirky, hilarious and heartfelt RIDE THE CYCLONE was a favorite among current teens, but I had never imagined this kind of hoopla.  But I should have known because this musical has the two main ingredients that connects with today’s youths: Damaged teenage characters and death.

When I arrived at the University of South Florida's  Theatre 2 an hour and fifteen minutes early, a large line had already snaked around the building; by 7:00 PM, when we were eventually let into the theatre for the 7:30 showtime, I wondered if the line had twisted and turned all the way to the parking lot of the Theatre & Dance building. As they had in other cult musicals (like The Rocky Horror Picture Show), several audience members came donned as the RIDE THE CYCLONE characters, doppelgangers for Ocean O’Connell and Constance Blackwood.  It was a full house.  Seventy people had to be turned away on opening night, and another twenty could not get in the Friday performance that I witnessed.  

Once we were ushered into the large black box for general admission seating, we could already see the inventive set of the doomed rollercoaster in a sort of limbo setting, with its lighted letters of the word “Cyclone” given the extra oddity of having a crooked “C” and an upside down “E.”  We knew something dark and cool was about to immerse us.  Soon, a moveable box featuring the mechanical fortune teller, Karnak, is slowly wheeled onto the stage.  “Is that a puppet inside or a person?” someone near me asked.  We keenly watched for signs of either puppetry or humanity, or a combination of both.  It is to the credit of the stellar Sarah Shannon as the Amazing Karnak that, due to her terrific body control and performance, we really didn’t know the answer until we actually saw her speak.

Before the show, with Karnak in place, an audience member got to have his fortune read.  The audience gasped, and then dozens upon dozens of them sprinted to the stage as if Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce were down there signing autographs.  I even got my own personal Karnak fortune on a card: “Your lucky number is 11.  You are cleverly disguised as a responsible adult.” Sounds about right.

And then the show began, and I soon realized what all the buzz was about.

RIDE THE CYCLONE (music, book and lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell) is a show about death, in particular that unimaginable sadness when a young person’s life is cut short, or in this case, when several young lives are ended way too soon, before they can really understand any true meaning to their existence.  It’s told in a vibrant, crazily plotted and enjoyably macabre way. In it, a handful of members of Uranium City’s  St. Cassian High School chamber choir die in a horrific rollercoaster accident and are thus offered, by Karnak, a chance to return to the world of the living.  Only one can be chosen as the sole survivor. Each character gets a song or two that explains why he or she should be the one to embrace their ultimate reward: A full life.

The USF production earns its buzz, its hoorays, and its standing ovations.  But make no mistake, RIDE THE CYCLONE is far from perfect.  Sometimes the orchestrations became too loud and drowned out some of the performers’ vocals, and the musical itself is oftentimes just odd for the sake of its own oddness and not for any storytelling arch or reason (I’m looking at you, “Space Age Bachelor Man”).  But it’s that quirky randomness that attracts those teens obsessed with the show.  As Ocean says, “I thought life had meaning, but it turns out it didn’t.” It's the same with several of the songs; no meaning, just quirk.

Some of the kooky, gleefully morbid, poppy songs become forgettable the moment I heard them, while others will stay with me forever.  The show has the same “feel” as other edgy shows featuring youthful characters: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee with its character songs presented in a contest of sorts (instead of a winner of the Bee, here you get to go back to the land of the living), and  the dark, pointed, uncomfortable  hilarity of Heathers: The Musical.  You can see why the young folk are taken with it.  In snippets, RIDE THE CYCLONE is a hit or miss affair, but when we look back at the overall show, we feel overwhelmed. It’s a work that must be experienced by anyone who wants to feel the current pulse of musical theatre.  I have often compared shows to rollercoaster rides, and it’s certainly no stretch of the imagination to compare this one as well.  It’s all about the ride as life, where we must embrace every moment of every day, where we should not let any moment go to waste, to lift our arms in the air as we scream with joy or horror.  Because someday, either too soon or so far away, we are all going to ride the Cyclone. 

The performances of the young USF cast are all quite strong, with one performer so out of the world glorious that it left me reeling afterwards (I'll get to her later).

Ashley Browning is a force as a pink-ponytailed Ocean, the annoying overachiever stereotype (think of a combination of Logainne and Marcy from Spelling Bee).  She’s thrilling in her big number, “What the World Needs.” Adrian DeLaRosa is equally wonderful as Noel, whose “Noel’s Lament” got one of the strongest ovations of the night. And Preston Kifer shows great range as the Ukrainian, Mischa, and even gets to showcase mad rapper skills in “This Song Is Awesome.”   

Sam Lipsey stands out as Ricky, the nerdy one-time mute who has such an active imagination that he transports us into another universe, even wearing a cheesy Fifties sci-fi alien costume complete with eyebrow-raising cod piece. The talented Kalysto Williams, with braided aqua hair, gets one of best songs of the show, “Sugar Cloud,” donning a gown covered with numerous teddy bear stuffed animals. She’s terrific as “the nicest girl in school,” the kid who will never leave her small town, and her story about losing her virginity in a Port-O-Potty just hours before her fated ride on the Cyclone is heartbreaking.

These characters get to sing their hearts out, almost literally, surrounded by supremely energetic and balletic dancing rats: Kelita Glaesmer, Sansi Pokharel and the amazing Ricky Hall.  Amelia Soell is splendid as both a rat and as Mischa’s girlfriend, Talia, showcasing herself as an outstanding dancer.

But my choice for best in this production, and one of the best performances I have seen of late, is Jalyn King as Jane Doe, a beheaded victim of the ride that no one can identify. 

Ms. King sports a Mary Pickford hairstyle and, walking almost hunchbacked, carts around a decapitated doll.  Her eerie saucer-wide dead eyes, similar to those “Love Is” children cartoons, reminded me of one of the Hale Bop cult members or maybe one of the Manson Family girls. There’s something otherworldly about her, like a zombie in Dawn of the Dead but maybe even creepier.  And also lovelier.  When she sings “The Ballad of Jane Doe,” with the other cast members twirling umbrellas,  it’s beyond angelic, more than just heavenly.  This is one of those performances that whisks you away with a voice so rare to hear, so pure that the words “lovely” or “spellbinding” just don’t seem good enough to rightfully capture it.  When she sang, I just wrote “Wow!” in my notebook and let her carry me away into  another world.  I have seen and will have seen many marvelous musical moments in performances this year, but I don’t think any will come close to matching the agonizing ecstasy of her work here. 

Jalyn King.  Remember that name.

The show is stunningly directed by the visionary Clareann Despain, who has created a production where all facets work on all cylinders.  Sean McDonald’s choreography is inspired and lively. The show’s musical director, the supremely talented Latoya McCormick-Hutchinson, gets sensational work from her singers.  She also leads the tight band, with Alex Braman on bass (and donning rat-ears as Virgil), Alexander Truver on guitar, Chistopher Bracco on drums, and Xandler McColley (along with Ms. McCormick-Hutchinson) on keyboards. 

Nice work by scenic designers Kristen Martino and Helouise Duna, costume designer Katy Mann (I won’t ever forget Contance’s low rent teddy bear gown or Ricky’s goofy alien getup), and Beau Edwardson’s appropriate lighting design.  Zaira Finderson’s projections add to the production, especially the cheesily sweet yearbook-like slideshows that introduce each dead contestant.

Now that I know what all the buzz is about, it’s time for you to experience it as well.  And you have two more chances to see RIDE THE CYCLONE: Tonight (Saturday, September 30th at 7:30 PM) and tomorrow (Sunday, October 1st at 3:00 PM). The show is free, so come early and be prepared to wait in a long line with other musical theatre lovers.  And when it’s over, when a winner is chosen for more life while the others ride the Cyclone into the unknown, you too will be buzzing about it.  And hopefully you’ll agree: This is one USF production that is to die for.

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