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theatre review

A scene from "Ride the Cyclone" at Theatre Passe Muraille

Critics and crowds don't always concur, but when they do, you've potentially got a very powerful show on your hands.

Ride the Cyclone, Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell's mordant and moving musical about six high-school choir members who die in a roller-coaster accident in small-town Saskatchewan, has become quite the homegrown hit, thanks to that rare synchronization of rave reviews and wonderful word of mouth.

After taking Vancouver and Whitehorse this fall, the sensational production from Victoria's ingenious Atomic Vaudeville company is back for a second visit to Toronto, co-presented by Theatre Passe Muraille and the Acting Up Stage Company. (Five performances sold out before it even opened, so act fast.)

I was terribly impressed when I first saw the show at the SummerWorks festival in 2010, but after a second ride, my love for it is beginning to exceed the bounds of critical propriety. Like other early adopters, I've grown so attached to the quirky characters Richmond and Maxwell have created, it almost feels as if they're my children too – and I just want them to go out and conquer the world.

Ride the Cyclone's structure is so simple that, at first, it was modestly billed as a "song cycle." The deceased choir members each get a monologue in which they sum up their short, bittersweet lives, mini-plays written in Legoland playwright Richmond's signature literate, loopy style.

Then they follow up with a show-stopping number composed by Maxwell, with lyrics co-written with Richmond; ranging from gospel to glam rock, the play features tunes that I found myself humming while writing this review.

Up first is Noel (Kholby Wardell), the only gay teen in Uranium, Sask., who died before ever kissing a man; disappointed with his reality, he sings out about the secret inner life he led, a fantasy of living as a prostitute in postwar France inspired by the New Wave cinema he rented and Jean Genet he read.

His fellow ghost choristers are equally original: Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg (Rielle Braid), a half-Jewish, half-Catholic overachiever; Misha (Matthew Coulson), a new Canadian whose passions include gangsta rap, ballet and an Internet girlfriend in Ukraine; Ricky (Elliott Loran), a nervous nerd whose fantasies are even wilder and weirder than Noel's; and Constance (Kelly Hudson), a girl embarrassed by her love for a dead-end town that all her fellow students couldn't wait to leave.

What really lifts Ride the Cyclone to a higher plane, however, is the sixth choir member. Found after the Cyclone crash missing a head, and never identified, Jane Doe is spending her afterlife in existential crisis, uncertain of who she was or even if she existed.

In classically trained singer Sarah Jane Pelzer's poignant performance (her eyes blotted out by a pair of black contact lenses), Jane is creepy at first, but becomes as adorable as the ghoul next door. Her soaring solo provides one of those tear-jerking, spine-tingling experiences theatregoers live for.

After a year of refining by its creators and performers, Ride the Cyclone's dark, edgy sense of humour remains intact, but it has a bigger heart than ever – and many of the segments are an emotional roller coaster.

I caught Ride the Cyclone the day after its official opening with a busload of students from Sheridan College who clearly identified with the young characters – and they were going wild for it, alternating between peals of laughter, sighs of sympathy and cheers for the vocal talents of the uniformly impressive cast.

Hank Pine and James Insell's production design is bold on a budget. Outside the context of a festival, however, the technical limitations are less likely to be shrugged off. Some lyrics get lost in Theatre Passe Muraille's so-so sound system. If the show continues to grow, it would also be worth hiring another actor to voice The Amazing Karnak, the fortune-telling machine that narrates the show; unable to respond to audience reactions, its prerecorded lines kept being wiped out by laughter – and this is a show where you don't want to miss a word.

Ride the Cyclone runs until Dec. 3.

Ride the Cyclone

  • Book by Jacob Richmond
  • Music and lyrics by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond
  • Directed by Britt Small and Jacob Richmond
  • At Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto