Six dead teenagers reflect on their lives—but this delightful Canadian chamber musical is far funnier, and more moving, than it sounds.
A sextet of teens from small-town Saskatchewan, the members of the St. Kassian chamber choir, find themselves in the immediate afterlife after an accident on the titular roller coaster derails their young lives. Caught in a carnival-themed limbo, with an arcade fortune-teller machine (think Big) as their spirit-guide-cum-game-show-host, the six tell their stories in song to determine which one of them gets to return to life.
All right, the concept is a little out there, but taken as read, it’s wackily, marvelously executed. Ride the Cyclone has been seen in various incarnations in Canada since 2008, including a touring production; Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production is the piece’s U.S. premiere, wittily staged and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell and with music direction by the impeccable Doug Peck.
Writers Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell work credibly in a number of popular musical idioms, from melismatic diva-pop, to Auto-Tuned hip-hop, to a dirge for the one unidentified dead girl (played creepily by Emily Rohm in a baby-doll wig and blacked-out contact lenses) that could pass for one of the Tom Waits songs that pepper The Tempest downstairs.
Rockwell’s staging is deliciously fresh and inventive, with smart use of Mike Tutaj’s gorgeous projection design. And the spot-on cast makes everything of their material. Russell Mernagh charms as an angry Ukrainian adoptee who’s into gangster rap; Jackson Evans slays as a mute kid who, finally able to communicate, busts out a seductive sci-fi disco jam about sex with cat people.
Tiffany Tatreau effectively annoys as the group’s overachieving perfectionist, Ocean, while Lillian Castillo's Constance, who spends most of the evening as Ocean's BFF/punching bag, gets the show’s joyful, cathartic climax number. And Kholby Wardell, who’s played small-town gay boy and Marlene Dietrich worshipper Noel in Cyclone’s every production, kills in a fantasy number in which he imagines a very different life for himself. As irreverent as it is accomplished, Ride the Cyclone does the job of any good amusement-park attraction: It makes you consider your mortality, but leaves you grinning ear to ear.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Book, music and lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell. Directed by Rachel Rockwell. With Lillian Castillo, Jackson Evans, Karl Hamilton, Russell Mernagh, Emily Rohm, Tiffany Tatreau, Kholby Wardell. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.