REVIEW: "RIDE THE CYCLONE, THE MUSICAL" — A CHANCE THEATER CALIFORNIA PREMIERE
Updated: Feb 7
Hilariously Bizarre! Yet Unceasingly Delightful!
Time to strap yourself in for “Ride the Cyclone, The Musical,” with music, lyrics and book by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, the second installment in Richmond's "Uranium Teen Scream Trilogy," a collection of three theatrical works, one not yet written, that takes place in the exaggerated, small Canadian town of Uranium City.
This dizzy, tragicomic, award-winning vaudeville musical possesses elements reminiscent of such shows as “Forever Plaid” and “The 23rd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” But it comes with a much different level of sophistication, introducing us to six more-or-less goofy teenagers — members of the St. Cassian High School chamber choir of Uranium City, Saskatchewan — who perish on a faulty roller coaster called "The Cyclone," and the swami-like mechanical fortune teller (a pragmatic Robert Foran as The Amazing Karnak...no, Johnny Carson did Carnac the Magnificent), serving as the narrator and game master, and who can return one of them to life. It’s a twisting, turning adventure through musical genres and a lighthearted romp with dark humor in its heart.
After its world premiere in British Columbia in 2008, the American premiere opened in 2015 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, then opened Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre the following year, ending its run in December.
And now, the long-anticipated “Ride the Cyclone, The Musical” is making its California premiere at Chance Theater, Anaheim, directed by Jocelyn A. Brown, musically directed by Lex Leigh and choregraphed by Miguel Cardenas, running from January 27th through February 26th on the Cripe Stage.
Delightfully weird with an engaging score and a supremely witty book, the surprising and thunderstruck show was knocked out of the park last Saturday night by a superlative high-octane cast in a production that’s as thrilling as any Broadway experience.
Perhaps Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond watched a few too many episodes of Glee before creating some of these characters. Yet, theater lovers will be taken in by the piece's utter charm, relentless originality, stellar performance and outstanding production values.
First to make a case for survival, with the eager pep of an obnoxious overachiever, is Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg, played with delirious perfection by Haley Wolff. Her song, resembling one of Taylor Swift’s perkier tunes, is aptly called “What the World Needs” is people like me.
The bossy Ocean vacillates between acting the patronizing best friend to everybody and revealing her inner mean girl. Her big number is less a celebration of her super-duper self than a sung PowerPoint presentation predicting the dim futures her fellow students would face. So, like, why should they be chosen? “Add ’em all up, and you still get zero,” she chirps.
Only after Ocean has thoroughly dissed all her classmates does Mr. Foran’s Karnak announce that the survivor must be chosen by unanimous vote. Attempting desperate damage control, Ocean makes up to Jared Machado’s Mischa Bachinski, a Ukrainian immigrant, by telling him, “I celebrate your culturally ingrained alcoholism.”
Mischa is a would-be rap star (“You might know me as Bad Egg on YouTube,” he boasts) who has an imaginary fiancée back in the old country. His plea for life is a satire of Auto-Tuned bling-crazed hip-hop, which is followed by an equally funny parody of a traditional Ukrainian wedding. Underneath all that bullyish Mischa bravado, however, is a discernible layer of insecurity.
Then there’s the provocatively heart-wrenching, winkingly louche number led by the lone gay kid, Noel Gruber (a bright Wyatt Hatfield), who arguably may have the juiciest role. “Being the only gay man in a small rural high school is kind of like having a laptop in the Stone Age,” he tells us by way of introduction. “I mean, sure you can have one, but there’s nowhere to plug it in.”
Mr. Hatfield’s Noel has an obsession with French New Wave cinema and became obsessed with the Marlene Dietrich movie “The Blue Angel” at a preternaturally young age, and when the spotlight arrives, he gets the chance to portray a “hooker with a heart of black charcoal,” as he sings to a dark, rollicking, pseudo-Kurt Weillian-like tune (“Noel’s Lament”) in which he imagines a very different life for himself.
Then, weirdness gets even weirder when Jalen Baham gives life to token disabled boy Ricky Potts, a friendless yet charming wacko living in a comic-book-inspired imaginary world, as he reveals his secret fantasy identity as a “prophet from the Zolarian star cluster, supreme leader of those that evolved from felines,” and convincingly transitions from a non-verbal teen on crutches with a degenerative disease to an accordion-playing David Bowie Space Boy doppelganger in a flared silver vest and checkerboard shirt, kicking out the jams with his rendition of Space Age Bachelor Man (accompanied by a phalanx of dancing cats).
And as the mysterious Jane Doe, a decapitated girl who is now unsure of her true identity, Em Flosi achieves an ethereal, haunting quality, mournful and captivating. Singing with a bright, pure soprano (“The Ballad of Jane Doe”), sometimes on a swing, she recalls the mechanical Olympia from Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.”
Fittingly, Rose Pell's very self-conscious Constance Blackwood, who spends most of the evening as Ocean's BFF/punching bag, gets the show's joyful, cathartic climax number. Ms. Pell’s Constance, whose rune is “I’m Sorry!” vibrates with an anxiousness to please as she desperately strives to escape the shadow cast by her supposed bestie, Ocean, finally bringing down the house with her song “Sugarcloud.”
Scenic Designers Antonio Beach and Bradley Kaye create a ghostly carnivalesque netherworld, designed with ghoulish atmosphere. On one side of the stage, the Cyclone's tracks stop hinting at the mishap, and on a cache-strewn muted midway, the singing and dancing is a lively spectacle.
Not only are the songs top-notch under the musical direction of Lex Leigh, Ms. Brown and Mr. Cardenas keep the dancing and merriment playfully moving with seamless transitions, molding a production that could be cutesy or corny in less sensitive hands. But there are no speed bumps on this thrill ride!
In fact, “Ride the Cyclone” achieves a rare unity in its book, music and lyrics. It’s a show in which you sense everyone involved has taken great pleasure in its creation and performance — a feeling that transmits itself subliminally to the audience. This oddball charmer radiates warmth and wit from spooky start to surprisingly sob-worthy conclusion. I’m just wondering, however, if purgatory is really this much fun!
CHANCE THEATER PRESENTS THE CALIFORNIA PREMIERE OF RIDE THE CYCLONE, THE MUSICAL; Book, Music & Lyrics by Brooke Maxwell & Jacob Richmond; Directed by Jocelyn A. Brown; Choreographed by Miguel Cardenas; Musically Directed by Lex Leigh; Scenic Co-Designers Antonio Beach & Bradley Kaye; Lighting Designer Masako Tobaru; Sound Designer Rebecca Kessin; Costume Designer Bradley Allen Lock; Projection Designer Nick Santiago; Production Stage Manager/Booth Operator/Props Master Bebe Herrera.
WITH: Robert Foran as The Amazing Karnak; Haley Wolff as Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg; Jared Machado as Mischa Bachinski; Wyatt Hatfield as Noel Gruber; Jaylen Baham as Ricky Potts; Rose Pell as Constance Blackwood; Em Flosi as Jane Doe; James Michael McHale as Mischa Understudy.
“RIDE THE CYCLONE, THE MUSICAL” runs January 27th through February 26th with performances on Thursdays at 7:30PM; Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM; Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 3PM. Chance Theater is located at Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center, 5522 E. La Palma Avenue, Anaheim, 92807. Performances are 90 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets may be purchased at www.chancetheater.com.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio