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Ride the Cyclone

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 30, 2016

Kholby Wardell, Lillian Castillo, Alex Wyse,
Tiffany Tatreau, and Gus Halper
Photo by Joan Marcus

At least Ride the Cyclone has style. Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond's musical, which just opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in an MCC Theater production, transports you into an off-kilter universe like few shows in recent memory. The landscape is a battered vaudeville stage crossed with a demented carnival, located in a harbor town on the shore of the River Styx. The costumes fuse the innocence of The Sound of Music with Cabaret's blood-drawing edginess. Lights play constantly with swirling shadows, making your perception as much about what you don't see as what you do. Although vaguely realistic in scope, the elaborately filmed projections look to be caught in a time-warp between 1930s Hollywood, 1960s counterculture, and today's indie scene. Oh, and did I mention that someone not only flies at one point, but does a 360-degree spin midair?

There is no question that with all this, designers Scott Davis (set), Theresa Ham (costumes), Greg Hofmann (lights), Garth Helm (sound), Mike Tutaj (projections), and Michael Curry Design and Hat Rabbit Studio (special effects), working in tight concert with director Rachel Rockwell, have plunged you into exactly the unpredictable nightmare they've envisioned. But as glorious as the visual experience of all this is, it becomes increasingly empty, if not outright pointless, the longer Ride the Cyclone plods on. And, despite running a mere 100 intermissionless minutes, it feels as though it runs through the myriad eternities the production predicts, and then some.

This is in part because, despite its appearance, there's not a lot original about what transpires. To the extent that the plot can be related, it concerns five teenage members of the Saint Cassian Chamber Choir, who clamber into a roller coaster ("in a small Canadian town in the middle of nowhere," we're told) and climb out again dead. Upon arriving in this detritus-strewn afterlife, along with a mysterious sixth girl no one (including herself) can identify, they find themselves at the mercy of a self-powered circus-like fortune-telling machine called The Amazing Karnak that tells them they will have to unanimously vote on one of them to be sent back to the world of the living. For no discernible reason, each then "auditions" to return, with their deepest fantasies—suggesting, somehow, that these represent their truest selves—to be the chief determining factors.

Emily Rohm
Photo by Joan Marcus

Think of it as Kurt Weill's A Chorus Line, if Weill had no taste or common sense. The token gay boy (named Noel Gruber and played by Kholby Wardell) dreams of being a femme fatale hooker type. The crotch-grabbing Ukranian (Mischa Bachinski, played by Gus Halper) envisions himself as crotch-grabbing rock star. The mute disabled kid (Ricky Potts, played by Alex Wyse) wails at length about being a feline sex god who impregnates the cosmos. The put-upon best friend (Constance Blackwood, played by Lillian Castillo) embraces her imagined individuality. The bossy know-it-all (the irritatingly named Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg, played by Tiffany Tatreau, who replaced Taylor Louderman in previews) is already living her most libidinous desire: making everyone follow her lead, no matter where she's going. And, naturally, the girl without an identity is desperate to know who she is.

That character, Jane Doe, was the sole one I could sympathize with, but just because I couldn't stop wondering why no one onstage other than the actress playing her, Emily Rohm, was dressed up in white fright makeup and approached every emotion and line reading with a deer-in-headlights-hypnotized look. And of the cast (which also includes Karl Hamilton in an elaborate getup as the monotonic Karnak), only Wyse manages to even suggest the possibility of humanity: His wide-eyed portrayal of Ricky captures the unfortunate young man's optimism and resilience without lapsing into unremitting caricature. No one else aims for anything even in the same space-time continuum as truth, settling instead for cartoonish depictions of one-dimensional personality traits concocted in the mind of a LSD-addled serial killer.

Why Maxwell, Richmond, and Rockwell wanted this, I can't begin to divine. To draw an unmistakable line of demarcation between This Existence and That One? Because "crazy" people are funnier than real people? Because no flesh-and-blood person could or would sing a lyric like "I have no desire to rule the galaxy / Oh to hold you close, it's enough for me / Makin' love in zero gravity-y-y-y a-OOOOO"? (The key change is in the original, by the way.) There are any number of possible reasons, but none satisfies because it's all just a big jumble.

Not all of it's bad. When the reincarnation decision is made, a video sequence that celebrates the facts of existence is the truly touching result. And the eerie, channel-switching-haunted-house music (the conductor is Remy Kurs) is always evocative, and it occasionally borders on the attractive.

As a complete package, however, the evening is rarely cohesive and never, ever coherent. Maybe that's the point? Death doesn't make any more sense than life, so why pretend it does? I don't know. All I do know is that the title of the show, which began life in British Columbia and had its American premiere (with much of the same cast) in Chicago last year, is unintentionally good advice for the people of New York. A certain mortality-defying attraction in Coney Island offers up a lot more chills, thrills, and suspense than you have a chance of getting from the beautiful but bloated and bewildering Ride the Cyclone.

Ride the Cyclone
Through December 18
MCC Theatre at The Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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