How far and high can Atomic Vaudeville ride its hit, Ride the Cyclone?
The members of the Victoria-based indie theatre company will find out in 2013, as they take their offbeat musical about six high-school choir members who die in a roller-coaster accident to a half-dozen Western Canadian cities – in a brand-new, bigger version that has been revamped at the request of a pair of very interested Broadway producers.
Last we heard from the Cyclone team, it was the end of 2011 – and they had just completed a three-city tour with a sold-out run at Toronto's Theatre Passe Muraille that also left critics (this one included) falling all over themselves to praise the show and its potential. "It doesn't just have legs, it's a centipede," wrote Variety's Canadian correspondent.
Writer Jacob Richmond and composer Brooke Maxwell were then faced with a flurry of inquiries – and a tough decision that most Canadian theatre creators would envy.
On the one hand, almost every major regional theatre in the country was clamouring to program Ride the Cyclone, as is, in their following season.
On the other hand, Kevin McCollum, the high-powered Broadway producer of Avenue Q and The Drowsy Chaperone, and Morris Berchard, a Toronto-based producer who is also active in New York, were knocking on their doors looking to get on-board and shepherd the show – with certain alterations – to commercial success in the United States.
What to do? In the end, the Atomic Vaudeville team decided to take both paths – at once. First, McCollum and Berchard forked out an estimated $30,000 for the creators and cast to workshop the show into a clearer narrative, a not-insignificant change that has required Richmond and Maxwell to write five new songs.
Now, having completed a technically challenging but enthusiastically embraced dry run of this latest version in front of fans and old friends at the University of Victoria early in December, the show is off on a winter-long trek that kicks off at Calgary's High Performance Rodeo festival, before hitting Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Nanaimo, B.C.
The creative team is frank about the challenges of accepting the tour – a well-earned reward, after working on the show since 2008 – and the overtures of commercial producers at the same time.
"We sort of have two masters in a way," says Atomic Vaudeville artistic producer Britt Small, who is doing double duty on Cyclone as director and production manager. "The workshopping is being done in the midst of this tour. There are two things going on at once and those things don't always agree."
From an artistic standpoint, Richmond, whose non-musical works like Legoland are gaining an international reputation, had to learn to allow an outsider into the creative conversation – and figure out how to take McCollum's notes without abandoning his own darkly comic and often raucously rude aesthetic.
"You can't write something that you don't like or don't really believe in," he says, cold-ridden and clearly exhausted after the intense run in Victoria. "Kevin's been very good about that as well."
On the production level, meanwhile, Atomic Vaudeville – a tiny company that doesn't even have a full-time administrator – has had to figure out how to mount a tour with a budget of half a million dollars. Prior to the success of Ride the Cyclone, the company – known for the popular monthly cabarets they've held in Victoria since 2004 – had never spent more than $100,000 on a show.
As McCollum's suggestions have been incorporated, the show has grown. There are still the same six strange but loveable main characters – all but one played by the same outstanding actors from 2011 – including Ricky, a geek who dreams of being a Space Age Bachelor Man, and Jane Doe, a spooky girl with all-black eyes who sings of the search for her identity.
But now, the Amazing Karnak, the fairground fortune-telling machine that narrates the play, is being voiced live by actor Carey Wass (who was Ukrainian exchange student Misha in an earlier version). And, instead of a band composed of a single bass-playing rat, there is a full four-person ensemble playing the score: Virgil and the Underworlds. The increased technical requirements mean touring with a sound engineer and a puppeteer.
It's a huge leap for Atomic Vaudeville – but the potential payoff of pleasing both the upcoming audiences and their fans in New York is huge.
"What we're doing is a little beyond our grasp – in terms of the production values, and heading off to six cities, and incorporating changes that a Broadway producer is requesting," says Small, who says she'd be happy to hand off the show to a new director if it has a life after this tour.
"I think we're succeeding, but it feels like we've been through the meat grinder, too."
For tour dates and details, visit www.ridethecyclonemusical.com
THREE OTHER SHOWS TO LOOK FORWARD TO IN 2013:
The Importance of Being Earnest
Neptune Theatre's 50th-anniversary season continues with artistic director George Pothitos's taking on Oscar Wilde's "trivial play for serious people." The actors eating cucumber sandwiches include the masterful Michael Therriault and – fresh from her Broadway debut as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar – the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's Chilina Kennedy.
Halifax; Jan. 22 to Feb. 17
Waiting for Godot
Fittingly, the most anticipated production of Antoni Cimolino's first season as artistic director of the Stratford Festival is Samuel Beckett's 20th-century classic. Jennifer Tarver, Canada's deftest director of despair, shepherds a dream cast: Tom Rooney and Stephen Ouimette as Vladimir and Estragon, with Tony winner Brian Dennehy as Pozzo and Randy Hughson as Lucky. Stratford, Ont.; June 27 to Sept. 20
Angels in America
Soulpepper Theatre Company goes epic with Toronto's first major revival of Tony Kushner's two-part play. Albert Schultz directs both parts of the rich, political fantasia, and the cast is full of young talents such as Damien Atkins, Michelle Monteith and Gregory Prest, as well as the superlative Diego Matamoros as the devilish Roy Cohn. (And if you don't make it east of the Assiniboine, Winnipeg Jewish Theatre is mounting Part 2 in May.) Toronto; July 19 to Sept. 14