Ride the Cyclone
January 9 – 12, 2013
Martha Cohen Theatre
Listen to my review on CBC Eyeopener here http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/2013/01/10/jessica-goldman-reviews-ride-the-cyclone/
It’s never fun to be the critic that isn’t totally won over by a new, plucky Canadian musical. Especially one by a small indie theatre company that through hard work and good luck just might be positioned to be the next great cross border success story. But through a mix of style over substance and imagination trumping solid storytelling I’m afraid I just can’t get on the Ride the Cyclone love train.
The show is the brainchild of Atomic Vaudeville, a small Victoria-based company. In 2010 they performed Ride the Cyclone at Summerworks in Toronto to much fanfare. The show then went on a small three-city tour and once again enjoyed rave reviews from audiences and critics alike. From there, things just snowballed into one bit of good news after another. In addition to several requests from regional theatre companies to program their work, Ride the Cyclone caught the attention of a big shot Broadway producer (of the Tony-award winning Avenue Q and Drowsy Chaperone fame) who came on board to workshop the show to see if it could be performed south of the border with a possible Broadway run. And that’s where the High Performance Rodeo performance comes into play. Presently, Ride the Cyclone is on a 6 city tour with a new snazzed up production as a kind of test ground for its readiness for bigger things.
The show concerns six choir kids from the economically dying town of Uranium, Saskatchewan who perish in a roller coaster accident at a travelling fair. Before they die, each of them has their fortunes read by a mechanical oracle machine named Karnack. Despite knowing the teen’s fate, Karnack doesn’t warn them due to his switch being set to “Family Fun” mode. After all, he says, telling someone they are going to die at a carnival is the opposite of fun. However, guilt gets the better of Karnack and he resurrects the choir telling them that he can allow one of them to live but the decision of who that will be must come from a unanimous group decision. So to convince the other choir members that they are worthy of life, each teen gets their turn at a fantastical musical number that expresses who they really were, what they struggled with, what they wished for and why they deserve to live.
With such a diverse group of characters, we are then treated to six very different weird and wonderful monologue musical numbers that vary in topic and style. Ocean Rosenberg (strongly performed by Rielle Braide) the straight A, ambitious, socially conscious class president brags about her high achievements. Noel Gruber (a wonderfully prickly Knolby Wardell) the only gay kid in town and proof according to Ocean that not all gay men are fun, sings of his desire to be a down in the gutter glamorous French film noir prostitute. Ricky Potts (the dynamically diverse Elliot Loran) the mute, handicapped boy, shows off the sexy space-age world he has created in his mind. Misha Bachinsky (a gruff but loveable Jameson Parker) the Ukrainian gangsta rapper talks of his dual natures of passion and rage. Constance Blackwood (the perky and heartbreaking Kelly Hudson) admits that she actually likes the town she comes from despite it being uncool to do so. Finally Jane Doe (hauntingly and beautifully voiced by the creepily black-contact-wearing Sarah Jane Pelzer)a girl no one can identify because she was decapitated in the accident and no one can find her head, sings longingly of her unknown identity.
On paper it sounds terribly maudlin, but it’s anything but tragic. Ride the Cyclone is 100% quirky, weird and clever fun. Or at least that’s what it’s supposed to be.
There is no question this hard-working cast is fun to watch and Brooke Maxwell’s music flows along nicely helped in part by a live four-man band on stage to give the sound some oomph. But other than Constance, the nice girl, who has the final fantastic and emotionally grabbing song, I didn’t connect with any of the characters. I didn’t dislike them per se, but I wasn’t rooting for any of them either. I certainly did appreciate that their personal stories all had unexpected and often very funny twists. These are thankfully not cookie cutter characters –Ricky for example the handicapped teen has an amazingly weird and wonderful story to tell that involves of all things, sexy space felines from the planet Zoltar. But playwright Jacob Richmond and Maxwell’s lyrics just didn’t provide enough emotive traction to have these characters become anything meaningful. The phenomenal imagination and creativity driving the idea for the show just didn’t translate into a satisfyingly compelling storyline and instead resulted in a clunky narrative that unfortunately wasn’t all that interesting.
From a production point of view, obviously there’s been a lot of work done on this play since its festival origins and while it certainly isn’t a big fancy production director Britt Candide Small does nicely squeeze out some big feeling musical numbers from the cast. But I think they are still struggling with how to go from a relatively intimate play to something that will fill a larger space with more polish. Some of the effects still feel low rent and indie, a couple of costume changes happen awkwardly but worst of is the dragginess of the show. In fairness, the production has recently added five new songs to try to beef up the production and perhaps they are still struggling with how to incorporate them into the whole. But several moments feel superfluous and very much “added on” in a more isn’t necessarily better type of fashion. Broadway-bound or not, I would have preferred a punchier tighter show.
With a definite cultish kind of element to Ride the Cyclone…as in a Rocky Horror meets Glee kind of thing; I have no doubt that there are audiences that will absolutely love this show. But I can also imagine that many audience members will leave wondering what the point was and honestly I don’t have an answer for them because I’m not sure I took anything away from it myself. However sometimes the point is simply to be entertained and for the most part Ride the Cyclone delivers that.
As for whether Calgary will love the show as much as the rest of Canada seems to…well the audience I saw the performance with was a mix of medium-size clapping with a few up on their feet at the end of the show. Personally I wish I had liked it more, but will gladly give three cheers for Atomic Vaudeville’s effort to bring something different to the stage and I will be proudly Canadian should they ever make it to the Great White Way.
For the guys – Don’t worry – this isn’t a bunch of kids singing their hearts out expressing FEELINGS. It’s politically incorrect, culture skewering, dark humour throughout. You may not relate to any of the characters – but you might have fun watching them do their thing. MAYBE SEE IT
For the girls – Constance, the nice girl, will make you laugh and break your heart. And the rest of it might make you giggle along the way. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – If by occasional that means you only like shows such as Evil Dead the musical, then yes do see it. Otherwise, stay at home… too quirky for you. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – If only to see what all the fuss is about and to say that you saw it before it got big. Plus the cast is a delight to watch and for the most part the production is well oiled. MAYBE SEE IT