Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Ride the Cyclone
Phoenix College
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Into the Woods, and A Chorus Line

The Cast
Photo by Rick Herman
There have been several plays, films and musicals that focus on a person or a group of individuals who are stuck in the area between life and death, and the quirky and fun musical Ride the Cyclone is one of the latest. It tells the story of a group of Canadian high school choir members who find themselves in the afterlife with a tough decision to make. With a great cast, fantastic creative elements, and clear direction, Phoenix College's production is a winner, even if the musical itself leaves a bit to be desired.

One fateful night, six members of the Chamber Choir at St. Cassian School in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, perish when the Cyclone rollercoaster they are on goes off the rails. They find themselves in a dark, shadowy, rundown warehouse strewn with carnival items. This is apparently the afterlife, and it is overseen by a mechanical fortune teller, The Amazing Karnak, who says that only one of the group will be allowed to return to the land of the living and that they must decide unanimously who it will be. As the teens talk and sing about their lives, and plead their case to be chosen to return to the living, they find that Karnak keeps changing the rules of how their fates will be decided.

With a book, music and lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, Ride the Cyclone has fun, interesting, and somewhat eccentric characters and a fresh and varied score. However, the script has some holes in it and some of the songs, while good, run on.

The Phoenix College cast are all talented singers, with some incredibly impressive vocals, as well as actors who create unique and distinctive characters. Siena Liljegren is great as Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg, the bossy, seemingly self-elected leader of the group who is an overachiever and even somewhat of a bully yet also a young woman who comes to realize that she needs to learn to put others first. As Noel Gruber, the school's one gay teen, Landon Kalin is charming. Gruber dreams of more than just being a Taco Bell employee, so he fantasizes he's a European cabaret performer with a tragic life that includes entertaining a new man every night, which he sings about. Kalin brings down the house with Gruber's song, "Noel's Lament."

Michael Samuel has a lot of fun creating Mischa Bachinski, a student from Ukraine, with a good accent, a wonderful connection to his fellow castmates, and some funny rap gestures. J Lehner is excellent as Constance Blackwood, the plain Jane girl who gets an added spark of adventure in her average life right before the accident. As Ricky Potts, the chorus member who was mute before the accident, Raymere Carter is warm and lively when he sings about Ricky's superhero cat fetish.

Michelle Cunneen's clear voice and confused gestures are perfect for Jane Doe, the sixth member of the chorus who lost her head in the accident and has no idea who she was. Mitch Menchaca is superb as Karnak, with a fantastic accent, animated vocal inflections, and sharp, mechanical gestures that perfectly depict this carnival fortune teller who lives in a box. While Brian Fleisch doesn't have anything to sing or say as Virgil the Rat, he has a few fun moments in the show.

Anne Dean Schindler's direction is clear and focused, and the choreography by Nikki Grapp is fun and varied. Music director Karl Schindler ensures the cast's vocals are strong and that the small, live band sounds great. The creative elements are excellent. Amanda Embry's expansive, evocative, eerie, and playful carnival set is quite impressive. The costumes by Anna Grace Bain are clear and distinctive. Nathaniel White's lighting ties in beautifully with the eerie yet also playful nature of the story. Videographer Laura Jacobs has created several excellent video montages.

For a musical about death you're probably wondering if there is a lesson or a point to the show. I guess that all depends on what you take away from it. Some will find the show a simple one with a minimal plot where each character gets a song to talk about themselves but also a show with no real moral or point to it. Others may find it a moving, reaffirmation of life and how you should find joy every day and celebrate the life you've lived and the adventures you've had, whether you're 18 or 80. I am somewhere in the middle as, while the score has some haunting melodies and intriguing characters, I was hoping for the end to be more cohesive. However, as the musical does clearly point out, life is just a ride after all so you'd better hop on for the journey.

Ride the Cyclone runs through April 23, 2023, at Phoenix College, 1202 W Thomas Road, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit

Director: Anne Dean Schindler
Choreographer: Nikki Grapp
Music Director: Karl Schindler
Costume Designer: Anna Grace Bain
Lighting Designer: Nathaniel White
Scenic Designer: Amanda Embry
Properties Designer: Kat Dover
Sound Designer: Richard W. Knells
Videographer: Laura Jacobs
Makeup and Hair Designers: Mari Gutierrez and Anna Maurizo
Stage Managers: Paulina Glamann and Kat Dover
Assistant Stage Managers: Mari Gutierrez, Erika Dominguez Producer: Christina Marin

Karnak: Mitch Menchaca
Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg: Siena Liljegren
Mischa Bachinski: Michael Samuel
Noel Gruber: Landon Kalin
Ricky Potts: Raymere Carter
Constance Blackwood: J Lehner
Jane Doe: Michelle Cunneen
Virgil the Rat: Brian Fleisch