Back in Toronto after a hit run at 2010's SummerWorks Festival, this roller coaster of a show proves it can ride along with the pros.
It’s tough to find a show more hyped than Atomic Vaudeville’s Ride the Cyclone. After being a roaring success at 2010’s SummerWorks Festival and scoring NOW‘s “Best of SummerWorks”, it began a national tour through Victoria, Vancouver, and Whitehorse, ending now with a run at Theatre Passe Muraille. Along the way, it has been called “theatrically dazzling,” “a work of genius that defies description,” and “probably the most uproarious and outrageous piece of musical theatre Canada has ever produced” by the Globe‘s Kelly Nestruck. Frequently compared to Tony Award–winning The Drowsy Chaperone, which had similar Canadian festival beginnings, everyone is half-hoping, half-expecting it to go on to Broadway. It sold out a few previews, as well as Monday night’s official opening here in Toronto.
So the question is, does Ride the Cyclone live up to its own hype? Also, is space filled with super-hot lady cat aliens? (The answer is yes).
Not everyone is a “theatre person,” even fewer consider themselves a “musical theatre person,” but really you just have to be a “person” to enjoy this undeniably strange yet completely endearing concert from six deceased choir kids from Uranium, Saskatchewan—a group of oddballs who met their untimely end when, on a trip to a rusty travelling carnival in their small rural town, their car on The Cyclone roller coaster literally flies off the tracks on the loop-de-loop. An automated fortune-teller, The Amazing Karnak, allows them one final chance to take to the stage and express themselves, their hopes, and their passions, and to come to terms with the end of their short time on Earth.
There’s Ocean (Rielle Braid), the political Karl Marx fanatic and ringleader of the choir. There’s Noel (Kholby Wardell), the most romantic (and only gay) boy in town who fantasized about becoming an opium addict who writes poetry and lives in Paris. There’s Ricky (Elliott Loran), the most imaginative loner who lives a second life as an intergalactic hero stud. Misha (Matthew Coulson) is a Ukrainian adopted immigrant, the angriest boy in town, passionate for hardcore rap, Russian ballet, and his long-distance girlfriend, while Constance (Kelly Hudson) is considered the nicest girl in town but has a dark streak of her own. Finally, there’s the case of Jane Doe (Sarah Jane Pelzer), a blank face with black eyes and blonde ringlets who no one can remember as being part of the choir at all. Decapitated in the accident, her body remains unidentified, a headless dolly her only companion.
All elements are operating at full tilt to make this show a captivating carnival ride itself, one that pushes the traditional conceptions of the smile-stapled-to-your-face musical but resists flying completely off the rails into freakish jokes just for the sake of being freakish. Ingrid Hansen’s understated costumes contrast delightfully with the flashing lights and colours of Hank Pine and James Insell’s set. Treena Stubel’s choreography playfully balances the off-kilter material in the music with everything from jazz hands to traditional Ukrainian folk dance.
But the real magic of the show comes from Brooke Maxwell’s music and the script of Jacob Richmond, who also co-directs with Britt Small. These three creators have more tricks up their sleeves than an exceptional carnie when it comes to developing complex and thoughtful characters. The audience gets caught up watching a cabaret-style song about a boy’s desire to be a Parisian prostitute who dies of typhoid, a stocky thuggish brute do pirouettes across the stage, or an incredibly creepy alien/ghost/girl mourn the loss of her head (and by extension, her identity) in impressive operatics. Little do they know that such bizarre concepts are actually creating relatable, flawed, and sympathetic characters that end up pulling at your heartstrings. And trust us, feeling anything besides sheer terror at Jane Doe, let alone compassion, is quite an accomplishment.
The cast, meanwhile, brings the Uranium City choir to life with gusto. Their talent is evenly spread across the board, tackling genres from Bowie glam-rock, to gospel, to high-energy kicklines, to operatic ballads. When not singing, dancing, or doing the worm with never-before-seen limberness, they give their characters the right mix of indignation and disappointment at their loss of life, pride in their plans for the future, and ultimately acceptance of their fate in one last raucous roof-raiser led by the usually quiet Constance.
If there is one show to say you “saw it when…,” it’s Ride the Cyclone. So skip the ring toss and the deep-fried butter, and get in line now for this roller coaster of a show.