Developed and premiered in Canada by the troupe Atomic Vaudeville – written by members Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond – the musical concerns a motley crew of small-town teenage choir singers who are killed in a roller coaster accident, pulled into limbo by a fortune-telling machine, and made to make their respective cases (in song, natch) as to why they should be allowed to come back to life. And whoever gets that honor must be decided by unanimous vote.
Canada loved it. Chicago Shakes loved it and picked it up for further workshops and a U.S. premiere, under the eye of its creative producer Rick Boynton and the hands of Director/Choreographer Rachel Rockwell. And like every one of its songs, this production makes a solid, positively flooring case for life elsewhere.
Now, how to describe it without spoiling anything.
It’s a wrenchingly well-oiled machine, this show: perfectly cast, perfectly designed and probably as close to perfectly written as anything can get. Which is to say it hits the marks it targets, even when the audience can’t quite expect what’s being targeted. That may be a little hard to discern at first when, on top of the bizarreries already mentioned, one must also note the presence of a pit band comprised of rats, fantasies of a race of alien cats and a headless girl.
The characters are also bracingly surprising for their utter avoidance of cliche, despite their every appearance of veering straight into it. Drawn from the John Hughes school of teenagers, they’re all brains, princesses, jocks, criminals and basket cases, and given a stage–in this case, Scott Davis’s journeyman carnival stage– they will strip away their outer shells and reveal the heart of the matter.
Appearing in this veritable sideshow: There’s Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau), the pint-sized overachiever who has no compunctions talking down to her peers, until she does. There’s Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo), Ocean’s very unassuming, very “nice” sycophant. There’s Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell, reprising the role he’s played in previous productions), the clean-cut kid who wishes things were a little dirtier. There’s Mischa Bachinski (Russell Mernagh), a Ukrainian meathead and romantic. There’s Ricky Potts (Jackson Evans), stricken mute in life, but now with plenty of things to say. Come one, come all.
Theirs are superb and moving performances all around–especially the tawdry showstopper “Noel’s Lament,” a song tangled in French celluloid and fishnet stockings, and Constance’s “Sugarcloud,” about the ups and downs and ups again of being “nice.” But the thematic heart of the musical lies with Jane Doe (Emily Rohm). Neglected by the choir and rendered unidentifiable in the coaster accident, she has no identity, and hence, nothing with which to build her case. Her life (and her eyes) are an empty void, and her own lament about said void, “The Ballad of Jane Doe,” defines “stage magic.”
It’s a lean one-act thrill ride, presided over by the fortune-telling machine The Amazing Karnak (Karl Hamilton, as withering as his character’s paint job), further presided over by the reliable music director and rat keeper Doug Peck. Making hairpin turns between eerie Weill-y cabaret, autotune pop and David Bowie isn’t easy, but he and his band pull it off thrillingly and crisply, as does Rockwell, who knows precisely when to keep things spinning and when to pump the brakes. Special props, too, to Mike Tutaj for consistently surprising use of projections.
Like a good roller coaster, Ride the Cyclone looks intimidating, but take a spin and it will work its way into you on a visceral, chemical level. Catch it now at Chicago Shakes, please. Or, hopefully, you won’t have to wait too long for these six teens to come back to death.
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier, 800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago, presents “Ride the Cyclone” through November 8. More information and tickets are available online here or by phone at (312) 595-5600.