I’ve been waiting for a Ride the Cyclone album for more than a decade.
That’s no exaggeration: I first fell for Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell’s darkly comic Canadian musical about six members of a high-school choir from Saskatchewan who die in a roller-coaster accident back in 2010, when the original production from Victoria’s Atomic Vaudeville played at Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival.
The show was out-there funny and original as all get out, but it also had tunes that I walked out humming. I remember immediately wishing I had Sugar Cloud, its ode to the sweetness of life despite its disappointments, on my iPod.
Well, technology has changed substantially over the last 10 years – but my desire for a Ride the Cyclone album has only grown alongside its cult following, which now exists in cities such as Edmonton, Winnipeg, Chicago and New York, where the show has since been developed.
So, here’s some good news in the midst of our pandemic purgatory: Ride the Cyclone has finally been recorded in what co-creators Richmond and Maxwell are calling a “concept album.”
It’s still got another couple days of mixing and exact release details are TBA, but Maxwell, who is producing the album, sent me a nearly finished version. From what I heard, it will be everything fans want, while also existing as its own complete listening experience.
Ride the Cyclone’s eclectic songs – which traverse the dead teen characters' favourite genres, from power pop to hip-hop to Eastern European folk – sound better than ever. For Maxwell, a self-proclaimed “music guy” who got pulled into the theatre world, the album was an opportunity for him to showcase the best musicians on Vancouver Island.
“I feel fortunate to have gone on this adventure into the States and met great musicians down there, different sound designers and different engineers, but always in my ears and my head and heart has been my music scene in Victoria,” he says.
“Any time I hear a bass player in New York or wherever I’m like, ‘Wait, we got a guy like that.’ Not to pull down any of the greats but raise up how fortunate we are in this area.”
Maxwell has recorded the album with Joby Baker of Baker Studios and enlisted “world-class” musicians such as Adam Dobres on guitar and Adrian Dolan on accordion to play the absurd songs about sex with space cats and post-war French prostitute-chanteuses that the Ride the Cyclone kids sing in an attempt to win a chance to return to life.
Two of the original Atomic Vaudeville production’s performances are captured on the concept album. Richmond narrates between tracks as the Amazing Karnak, a mechanical fairground fortune-teller tormented by knowledge of the future, and B.C.-raised, Toronto-based Kholby Wardell reprises the role of Noel, the only gay teen in Uranium, the small town from which the choir hails.
The other leads are voiced by five fantastic American performers who joined the show as it – backed by Broadway producer Kevin McCollum and Canadian producer Morris Berchard – made its way from Chicago in 2015 to the finalized iteration in Atlanta in 2019.
Lillian Castillo, who plays “nicest girl in town” Constance and sings Sugar Cloud, and Emily Rohm, who plays a headless, unidentified victim of the roller-coaster accident dubbed Jane Doe, recorded their parts in Chicago, while Tiffany Tatreau, who plays ruthless overachiever Ocean, recorded hers from Denver.
Scott Redmond, as sci-fi nerd Ricky, and Chaz Duffy, as Ukrainian-born bro Mischa, recorded their vocal lines in New York and Nashville, respectively.
It was a pricy enterprise to book time in five studios across borders – and a logistical puzzle to record group numbers. One of the clever coronavirus-era solutions: Wardell flew to Victoria, quarantined for two weeks inside the Roxy Theatre (run by Jacob’s father, Brian Richmond) and then captained a local “ghost” choir of six to augment certain numbers.
“While Ride the Cyclone may be too out-there to ever make it to Broadway like The Drowsy Chaperone, this unique show is destined to travel far and wide,” I wrote in 2010. For once, I turned out to have Karnak-like powers of prescience. But the show’s journey to its final was, appropriately enough, a roller coaster.
Ups included a Western Canadian tour that helped pave the way for the now-thriving domestic development of new musicals in this country and the American production directed by Rachel Rockwell landing on The New York Times list of best theatre of 2016.
The downs included when the Times critic that raved about Ride the Cyclone left that influential paper in early 2017 – no longer guaranteeing a similar review for a longer commercial run.
And then, tragically, in 2018, Rockwell, whose directing career had huge momentum, died at 48 of cancer. (Rockwell’s son, Jake, appears on the concept album on guitar in tribute to her.)
It was another Canadian, Leora Morris, who took Rockwell’s place for the Atlanta production that, with the help of the right cast and a little additional material from writer Alan Schmuckler, finally locked the material into place.
Ride the Cyclone has since been made available for licensing, and the McCollum and Berchard-backed concept album will be a great way of marketing it to future producers, as well as a way a capstone for the creators.
“We thought this would be a good time to do the album, just so people could hear what we worked on for all those years,” Richmond says.
His creation Karnak has a wryer take, of course, which can been heard in his recorded introduction: “Welcome to the Ride the Cyclone album – where, through my year of prognostications, I realized the only thing that makes less money than theatre is releasing an album through a streaming service.”
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