Fasten your seat belts and “Ride the Cyclone”

1974
The cast of 'Riding the Cyclone' is singing while holding white clouds
Ride the Cyclone: The Musical Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography

A musical tale of second chances and what makes a life well lived

The cast of 'Ride the Cyclone' in on stage grouped together doing jazz hands
Ride the Cyclone: The Musical Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography

The McCarter Theatre Center has picked an unusual musical for its current production. Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond’s Ride the Cyclone, a co-production with the Arena Stage of Washington, DC, is a ninety-minute intermission-less show covering a range of musical styles as its characters reflect on their lives prior to a fatal accident.

The setting is a warehouse containing the abandoned remains of a defunct carnival. Included in the debris is The Amazing Karnak (played by Jeffrey Binder), a mechanical fortune-telling device designed to predict the exact time, place, and circumstances of someone’s death. Karnak introduces us to six members of the St. Cassian High School chamber choir of Uranium City, Saskatchewan. While returning from a competition, the group stopped at the Wonderland Carnival and were killed while riding a faulty roller coaster, the “Cyclone” of the show’s title. Karnak offers the six teens the chance to send one of their numbers back to life — but the decision on whom to choose must be unanimous.

The six teens tell their stories, hoping to convince the others to choose them. Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Katerina McCrimmon) is the overbearing, overachiever daughter of hippie parents who is determined to excel at everything, convinced of her own superiority, and insensitive to those around her. Constance Blackwood (Princess Sasha Victomé) is a self-effacing “nice” girl who despises her small-town upbringing, hiding her true feelings from everyone. Noel Gruber (Nick Martinez), the only gay boy at school, is a drama queen who immerses himself in a naive fantasy based on pseudo-nihilism. Mischa Bachinski (Eli Mayer), a Ukrainian immigrant, hides his true feelings behind a “bad boy” facade while longing for his online Ukrainian girlfriend, Talia. Ricky Potts (yannick-robin eike) suffers from a progressive illness that has robbed him of his voice and is slowly destroying his mobility, yet compensates with a rich fantasy life. Jane Doe (Ashlyn Maddox) is an amnesiac whose beheaded body was all that was found after the accident; the others know nothing about her, questioning if she even was a member of the choir.

Credit goes to scenic designer Scott Davis, lighting designer Jiyoun Chang, and projections designer Katherine Freer for creating a set that is a kaleidoscopic limbo space both fantastical and decrepit. It is filled with debris which includes a part of the Cyclone’s tracks, abandoned carousel horses, Karnak’s booth, lights, and signage. Projected images and video appear on an upstage curtain as well as on video units along what normally would be a proscenium. The whole is a space adaptable to any of the characters’ needs while they tell their stories.

An actress of 'Riding the Cyclone' has messed up white hair, with contact lenses that give her eyes a creepy look
Ride the Cyclone: The Musical Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography

Music director Mark Christine plays keyboards and conducts a lively five-piece band, which includes guitarist Ed Levy, drummer Ryan Knudsen, Shannon van der Reck who plays bass guitar as well as appearing as Hector, the rat who kills Karnak, and keyboardist Nick Wilders. Together, the band adds flavor to the numbers, which, while not quite of the caliber of other recent area musicals are often bright and sometimes witty. Outstanding numbers include Ocean’s affirmation of her own importance “What the World Needs,” “That F#@&ed Up Girl,” Noel’s lament; Micha’s song of longing and lost love, “Talia”; Ricky’s flight of fantasy “Space Age Bachelor Man” and “Jawbreaker/Sugarcloud,” Constance’s recognition of the worth of her small-town upbringing. The show ends on an upbeat note, with the five remaining teens heading off to explore their afterlife, proclaiming their wonder about what lies ahead in “It’s Just a Ride.”

Ride the Cyclone may not be to everyone’s taste, either musically or dramatically. But director Sarah Rasmussen, McCarter’s Artistic Director, has crafted a solidly entertaining show, one that will not prove to be a waste of one’s time. So work your way down to Princeton, fasten your seat belts, and Ride the Cyclone!

Ride the Cyclone is presented by the McCarter Theatre Center at the Roger Berlind Theatre on the Princeton University campus through May 29th. For more information or to order tickets, visit mccarter.org or call 609-258-2787. The theatre requires proof of vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building, and masks must be worn while inside the building.