Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell
Directed and Choreographed by Rachel Rockwell
Musical Direction by Doug Peck
Produced by Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Dark Humor Makes Musical About Dead Kids All the Better
If you were an artistic director, and somebody pitched to you the idea of a musical about teenagers who died in a rollercoaster crash, even for the Halloween season, you might be inclined to dismiss it. But if that person was Rachel Rockwell, you would do well to listen. Ride the Cyclone was originally a cabaret show by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell that toured in Canada. When Rockwell found it, she proposed working with Chicago Shakespeare Theater to remake it for a high-profile American production, and the result is a real triumph. With the musical direction of Doug Peck and a first-rate design team in Chicago Shakespeare’s intimate upstairs space, Ride the Cyclone has the backing to deliver its sad, sweet, and very funny story to a mainstream audience.
The pre-show soundtrack (sound design by Palmer Jankens) alternates between funk and Barnum and Baily circus music. Scott Davis’s proscenium represents a very old-fashioned and run-down kind of amusement park, which helps explain why the eponymous roller coaster crashed. Its remnants still arc above the dilapidated playing space. Stage left is a booth containing our narrator, The Amazing Karnak (Karl Hamilton), an animatronic fortune teller. Karnak was created with the power to foresee peoples’ deaths, but to make him family-friendly, he was prevented from warning them. Instead, he was required to remind patrons to ride the Cyclone. Tonight, Karnak has foreseen his own death, caused by a rat chewing through his power cable. In a final act of penance, he raises the ghosts of the six teenagers from St. Cassian’s choir whose untimely accident apparently resulted in the park’s closure, and promises that one of them will be restored to life. But first, he would like for they, who had been endlessly eulogized by their small hometown of Uranium City, Saskatchewan, to describe their lives in their own words.
The first of the six, Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau) is happy to speak for everyone. She is an overachiever who rebels against her hippy parents by being a goody two-shoes, while the others are deeply flawed in unpleasant ways, which she details through song. In short, she should be resurrected, because she’s the only one who provides a net positive to the world. At that point, Karnak informs her that the decision will made by the unanimous vote of the teens themselves. The others wisely choose to describe their fantasies, and keep the bashing to a minimum. Next to tell his story is Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), a decadent intellectual Taco Bell worker who developed a nihilistic attitude due to the loneliness of being the only gay man in his small town, but who dreams he is a post-war prostitute in a French film noir. And then there’s Mischa Bachinski (Russell Mernagh), a Ukrainian adoptee who was an unwelcome surprise to his new family, who thought they were getting a baby instead of an alcoholic, and who had personal issues with living somewhere called Uranium City. At the time of his death, Mischa was a rapper who projected a hyper-macho image and boasted of having vast riches, which he obviously did not. Though he insists he girlfriend in Kiev was real.
Ride the Cyclone has basically retained its cabaret form. There isn’t much plot; it’s mostly the teenagers’ monologing about themselves to song. But one of the six, the mysterious Jane Doe (Emily Rohm) has a difficult time with that. Nobody met her before the crash, and since she was decapitated, her body could not be identified. She does not remember her identity either, so now she exists as a monstrous, porcelain skinned, black-eyed, life-sized walking doll whose motif sounds like a toy piano. She’s not very nice, and the other kids understandably don’t like her (not that they like each other). Ricky Potts (Jackson Evans) was mute and crippled in life, and enjoys being able to finally interact normally with other people. His fantasy life involved being an alien superhero who rescues worlds of hypersexualized cat-people, he’s glad to get to tell us. Last to sing is Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo), who developed a milquetoast people-pleasing personality to compensate for her rotundity and lack of self-esteem. She was oppressed by Ocean’s bossiness in life and in death, and now Jane Doe picks on her, too.
Most of the songs are in early twentieth century European cabaret style, but there are exceptions, like Mischa’s rap (“Auto-tune will never die!”) and Ocean’s girl-group inspired pop song. While none of the songs erase the teens’ flaws, they do show them as much more fun, quirky people (even Noel), and get us rooting for their singers to return to life. Karnak was right about the teens being much more appealing when they can speak honestly about their foibles. Each of the actors also seizes their moment to shine, but does just as much work as the back-up and ancillary figures in each other’s stories. Costume designer Theresa Ham puts them through many transformations as their participation in each other’s mini-plays illustrates them learning empathy for each other. The show is high-energy and provides plenty of humor. Even Karl Hamilton makes a charismatic magical robot, always ready with a snarky remark, and alternating in his verbal duels with Ocean between droll and troll.
This show was a bit of a risk for Chicago Shakespeare, but I predict it will pay off. This is the city where every year The Ruffians remount Burning Bluebeard, the story of the 1903 Iroquois fire, and Ride the Cyclone has a very similar aesthetic and tone. It’s sad, yes, but hilarious, with a bit of wisdom mixed in, and a superb showcase of performing talent. Rockwell has shown in her last two projects that not only is she very good at directing teenagers, she’s very good at directing adults to mimic teenagers. Her signature choreography livens up this piece, on a chamber scale, to be sure, but quite well. Mark Tutaj, who earlier this week took home a Jeff Award for his projection design, provides videos here that would be corny, had the production not earned its moment of sentimentality. I can hardly imagine a better show for Halloween, but I think Ride the Cyclone has potential to be a hit year-round.
This show has been Jeff recommended.
Playing in the Upstairs Studio at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E Grand Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $30-48 with discounts for patrons under 35. To order, call 312-595-5600 or visit chicagoshakes.com. Playing through November 15. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.