'Ride the Cyclone': Theater Review

RIDE THE CYCLONE Production Still - Publicity - H 2016
Joan Marcus
More of a patchy diversion than a sustained thrill ride.

The members of a high school choir killed in an amusement park tragedy wait in purgatorial limbo for a vote on who gets to return to life in this macabre new musical.

Nobody could accuse Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, the creators of Ride the Cyclone, of being unadventurous. From the show's opening image, when a headless girl appears in the murky gloom, singing a creepy carousel tune about the never-ending dream of life, this original musical about six small-town teens flung to their deaths in a rollercoaster accident proclaims its morbid unconventionality with the insistence of a carnival barker. It comes to off-Broadway's MCC Theater in a physically striking production that generated excitement in Chicago last year, following earlier hit runs in Canada, where it was developed from cabaret performances. I wish I could get on board with the enthusiasm.

The show is certainly bizarre enough to seduce an admiring audience, and those still in touch with their high-school memories — of peer pressures, insecurity, popularity contests and private hells — might be especially responsive. In that sense, it shares some creative DNA with Carrie, the legendary Broadway flop based on the Stephen King novel, which MCC took a bold stab at resurrecting from the ashes in 2012.

Maxwell and Richmond, who co-wrote the music, lyrics and book, evoke a grab bag of different influences, intentional or not. In terms of musicals, their show has structural echoes of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which also throws together a bunch of familiar childhood types in a competitive environment, giving each of them a signature song to reveal their foibles; and Cats, which weaves the slenderest thread of plot around song-and-dance turns by a string of felines all competing to ascend to the afterlife.

The contest is reversed in Ride the Cyclone, as a half-dozen Saskatchewan high school chamber choir members (think Glee), hurtled to their deaths when a rollercoaster derailed at the apex of its loop-the-loop (see Final Destination 3), chill in purgatory awaiting a vote to decide who gets to return to the world of the living (take your pick of reality TV models). Their musical musings on death and dying, eternity, lives cut short and the importance of valuing every moment owe a debt to Thornton Wilder (both Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey), while the adjudicator of their fates is a penny-arcade fortune-telling machine called The Amazing Karnak, a direct steal from Zoltar in Big.

The unwieldiness of that mix is less of a hurdle for the show than its strained humor, which becomes tiresome pretty much from the outset. Karnak (Karl Hamilton) sets the arch tone by pushing way too hard in a deadpan intro that reflects on the irony of a novelty attraction designed to predict the cause, time and place of someone's death. The machine then foretells its own demise by introducing Virgil, the rat that will chew through its power cable. Virgil plays bass in the production's four-piece band, because "there is nothing more base than death." Groan.

That impulse toward the easy, cheesy laugh means that unlike other teen-angst musicals, such as Spring Awakening, the emotional stakes remain flat. The young cast is talented and appealing enough, but their characters and their sketchy back-stories too seldom escape the cartoonish, even when their vulnerabilities are put on display. In many ways, that makes Ride the Cyclone play like a jokey Fringe Festival entry that has somehow lucked into a top-drawer production.

Director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell provides distractions with her gorgeous, ghoulish staging, aided by Scott Davis' atmospheric set, Greg Hofmann's spookhouse lighting and by clever use of Mike Tutaj's video elements to suggest the lives beyond the characters' limbo state. The action unfolds on a vaudeville stage in a dilapidated warehouse, a mechanical graveyard stuffed with the dusty remnants of old amusement parks and funfairs, and wrapped in the rusted girders of the fateful rollercoaster.

Front and center among the deceased choristers is high school president and straight-A student Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau), the "white sheep" of an anti-capitalist hippie family. In her perky, poppy anthem of mean-girl self-promotion, "What the World Needs Is People Like Me," Ocean makes the case that she is the only responsible choice, largely by illustrating the reasons her rivals add up to a collective zero. That's before Karnak informs her that the survival vote must be unanimous. Awkward.

Ocean's competition includes her sweet-natured BFF, Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castro). Being a zaftig girl with self-esteem issues (her catchphrase is "Sorry!"), it's a given that Constance will break out of her shell with a big-belt power number before the end of the show. The composers oblige with "Sugarcloud."

There's also Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), the only gay in the village, whose sourness prompts Ocean to declare: "You challenged my preconceived notion that all gay dudes are fun to be around!" A virginal Taco Bell employee and enfant terrible manqué, obsessed with Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, Noel sings a sultry lament in which he mourns "the f—ed up girl … the hooker with a heart of black charcoal" that he might have been, had he been born in another time and place. Noel has a crush on Mischa Bachinski (Gus Halper), a Ukrainian bad-boy rapper whose bling lust masks his yearning for a traditional wedding in "This Song is Awesome/Talia."

Ricky Potts (Alex Wyse) is the disabled kid, who is all but invisible to his choir colleagues until he casts off his crutches in the twilight-zone afterlife and explores his sci-fi fantasy world in "Space Age Bachelor Man," slipping into glam-rock drag.

Each song appropriates a distinct style, and Rockwell changes up the staging accordingly. But as a musical score, it lacks cohesion, mostly sounding like inferior versions of numbers you've heard before in more thoughtfully crafted shows. The writers are so busy celebrating the freaky novelty of their premise and the outlandishness of each character's self-exploration that their attempts to give them an inner life remain half-baked. And nothing wears thin faster than facile stereotypes.

The most memorable character also gets the musical's most beguiling song, "The Ballad of Jane Doe." Described by Karnak as "the mystery contestant," Jane (Emily Rohm) was decapitated in the accident and remains unidentified, wearing the head (and simulating the movement) of an old-fashioned porcelain doll as she participates in the selection process. Rohm sings Jane's existential torment, wondering what can be salvaged of her broken soul, in a haunted, quasi-operatic soprano as she floats and tumbles through zero-gravity darkness in a nifty stage trick. It's arguably the one time this show fully succeeds in pulling together its grotesque horror concept with a lingering note of human pathos.

Elsewhere, neither the tragedy of dreams unfulfilled nor the beauty of even the most cruelly truncated lives leaves much of an impression.

Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York
Cast: Lillian Castillo, Gus Halper, Karl Hamilton, Tiffany Tatreau, Emily Rohm, Kholby Wardell, Alex Wyse
Director-choreographer: Rachel Rockwell
Music, lyrics & book: Brooke Maxwell, Jacob Richmond
Set designer: Scott Davis
Costume designer: Theresa Ham
Lighting designer: Greg Hofmann
Sound designer: Garth Helm
Projection designer: Mike Tutaj
Music director: Remy Kurs
Music supervisor: Doug Peck
Presented by MCC Theater, by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation