Like the roller coaster that provides the impetus for the story, Ride the Cyclone is a fast, exhilarating ride. But it has its ups and downs, too, and on its opening night at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival in Vancouver, it nearly went off the rails – technically anyway.
If you haven’t heard, Ride the Cyclone, written by Jacob Richmond and produced by Victoria’s Atomic Vaudeville company, is Canada’s next great hope for the Great White Way. As reported by The Globe and Mail’s J. Kelly Nestruck, the show has attracted the attention of Broadway producer Kevin McCollum (Avenue Q, The Drowsy Chaperone) and has consequently been beefed up for a possible run in New York. There are new songs, a four-piece band replaces the single on-stage musician, and the pivotal character of the Amazing Karnack is now voiced live. There is also a significant alteration in the narrative, in what appears to be an attempt to tighten the show’s focus, and maybe even add some suspense.
In the play, six teenagers who live in the fictitious small town of Uranium, Saskatchewan – they’re choir members for one reason or another (ambition, boredom) – pay a doomed visit to an amusement park. After a roller coaster accident sends them all looping the loop toward death, they are offered a second chance at life – or one of them is, anyway. In this new incarnation of the play, the fortune-telling Karnack gives each of the dead high school kids the opportunity to prove why they should be allowed to return to the living. Cue the musical numbers. It’s Glee meets Survivor.
Ocean Rosenberg (Rielle Braid) is a half-Catholic, half-Jewish overachiever; Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell) is Uranium’s only gay teen; Ricky Potts (Elliott Loran) is a disabled, mute dreamer; Misha Bachinsky (Jameson Matthew Parker) is a Ukrainian-born rapping romantic; and Constance Blackwood (Kelly Hudson) is a confidence-lacking, hometown-loving nerd. The sixth teen we know only as Jane Doe (Sarah Jane Pelzer). A creepy zombie-esque rag doll with an ethereal voice, her identity remains a mystery. Was she even in the choir? Not even she seems to know who she was before she died on that roller coaster.
Each has a turn at proving why he or she should be the one to live, by summing up their lives in song. Karnack (voiced by Carey Wass – who originated the role of Misha – and operated by puppeteer James Insell) oversees the proceedings.
The sheer inventiveness of this work cannot be overstated. Each segment is a delight and takes a sharp turn musically from the last. Ocean sings about her dysfunctional upbringing and economics; Noel brings the house down with his crossdressing Parisian fantasy; Ricky dazzles as a Bowie-esque glam rocker in spandex; Misha raps with passion and anger about life in Ukraine and Uranium.
But while each number is utterly entertaining, it’s only Constance’s ode to her little life in Uranium that packs an emotional punch. Finally, the audience is able to connect with a character, to care about one of these dead teens in more than a superficial way. It takes too long to get there.
The performers are superb, but there is an unevenness to the production that makes for a bumpy ride. On opening night, some of this was due to technical difficulties. Early in the show, the red curtain at centre stage behind the actors became stuck three-quarters of the way up, forcing actors to duck under it to walk on stage and, in one uncomfortable instance, making for a difficult entry for a spinning wheel (a stagehand finally yanked the curtain off the wheel). While the curtain was stuck, the audience could see what was going on behind the performers, but even beyond that, I could see actors enter and exit stage right, which was distracting. In addition to the curtain woes, the lighting was jerky a few times, and the music drowned out the singing at points, so it was difficult to hear those clever lyrics. Perhaps it was these glitches that had me longing for the intimacy of the version that came through Vancouver in 2011.
But it’s exciting to see the show develop, even with the growing pains. The projections are spectacular – in particular during Misha’s love song for his online Ukrainian girlfriend. And they would have been particularly poignant in the final moving scene, but again, there appeared to be technical problems, with a blank screen popping up at times (unintentionally I presume) in between emotion-charged images of everyday life.
This show – quirky and beautiful, funny and sad, smart and exciting – is not perfect yet. But that’s no reason to get off this ride. Though still rickety, its potential for thrills and chills endures.