Theatre Review: ‘Ride the Cyclone’ at Alliance Theatre

Photos by Chris Helton

Alliance Theatre is presenting a very unusual musical play called “Ride the Cyclone,” with book, music, and lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, directed by Leora Morris, running on the new Coca-Cola Stage through May 26.

I’m tempted to say the show had its origins in Xanadu, where Kubla Khan decreed a stately pleasure dome be built; you see, there is an other-worldly aspect to the piece.

Actually “Ride the Cyclone” began in a cabaret in Canada and moved on to runs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (2015); then MCC Theater brought it to Off-Broadway in 2016 for a very short but critically acclaimed run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Like the little train that could, it kept on.

Since you learn the basic plot and situation in five minutes, it’s no spoiler to just borrow the succinct synopsis the Alliance provided in the program: “A teenage chamber choir from Uranium City, Saskatchewan dies in a roller coaster accident at a traveling fair. They land in a strange purgatory, overseen by a mechanical fortune teller who invites them to compete in a macabre game; the winner of this game will return to the land of the living. The bewildered teens, each in turn, make cases for themselves, singing and dancing for their lives, telling their stories of lives interrupted.”

That’s it; and yet that’s not all, for what a synopsis omits is the human element. We are dealing with six very live (oops, not here) and lively (yes) teenagers played by six winsome young people; plus one rather creepy fortune teller—The Amazing Karnak (Karl Hamilton)—who share with us their hopes, aspirations, and unrealized dreams. And the play comes to life.

There is Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau), who gleefully sings “What the World Needs Is People Like Me.” But after her number, Karnak announces that the survivor must be chosen by unanimous vote. Uh-oh. So Ocean presses her “demure” button instantly and attempts to soft pedal it.

The lone gay kid in the group, Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell) says “Being the only gay man in a small rural high school is kind of like having a laptop in the Stone Age. I mean, sure you can have one, but there’s nowhere to plug it in.” Then he delivers a show-stopping number with touches of Marlene Dietrich and Liza Minnelli.

The shy, anxious-to-please Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo) comes out of her shell long enough to deliver a rousing number herself.

There’s the spooky contestant Jane Doe (Emily Rohm), who wears pale make-up and moves rather slowly. She was decapitated in the accident, but not to worry: She carries her head around with her; or rather, a little doll without a head. I know, it sounds icky, but she has a lovely soprano voice. The afterlife has its compensations.

Scott Redmond plays Ricky Potts; Chaz Duffy plays Micha Bachinski. This is a very strong cast; most have been with the show since its Chicago run, and they perform with subtlety and panache and relate to one another like the old friends I hope they are.

There is a cool set designed by Scott Davis and lighting by Greg Hofmann, as well as projections on the back wall: scenes from the kids’ earthly lives.

I realize the whole piece sounds quite odd, and it’s certainly not an ordinary musical. But it has some magic and a message: In the time of your life, live; don’t let imagined limitations and fears stop your parade. This admonition, beautifully shown in 95 minutes, makes the evening glow.

For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.

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