“The Roller Coaster of Life”
While many disappointed voters may be considering moving to Canada, Canada has just made a move here in the form of a mostly appealing new Off-Broadway musical, Ride the Cyclone, which premiered in Victoria, BC, and played in Chicago before settling in at the Lucille Lortel in an MCC Theater production. Inventively directed and choreographed by Chicagoan Rachel Rockwell, who also staged its earlier versions, it takes us to a dilapidated warehouse (well-designed by Scott Davis and lit by Greg Hoffmann), where the spooky remnants of an old-time amusement park are stored.
|Company of Ride the Cyclone. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Upstage, a proscenium suggesting the entrance to a tunnel of love contains a curtain used for the extensive videos designed by Mike Tutaj. Segments of a roller coaster are integrated into the environment and, down left, is a carnival fortune-telling booth. Sitting inside is an eerie, automated fortune teller, with turban and glowing eyes, a crystal ball between his artificial hands, as he narrates and controls the odd events. Giving it life is actor Karl Hamilton, who isn’t seen until the curtain calls.
|KholbyWardell, Lillian Castillo, Alex Wyse, Tiffany Tatreau, Gus Halper. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
That he’s called the Amazing Karnak—remember Johnny Carson’s hilarious Carnac the Magnificent?—suggests that book writers Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, who also wrote the music and lyrics, have a bit too heavy a thumb on the comedy scale, which the rest of the show often bears out. Fortunately, the songs, performances, and staging go a long way toward compensating for the clichéd humor (although others, like the continually giggling woman next to me, might beg to differ).
|Gus Halper. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
The whimsically campy work (which every critic and his sister likens to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) rests on a rather chilling premise: six distinctively different but nevertheless stereotypical high school kids, members of Uranium City, Saskatchewan’s St. Cassian High School’s third-rate Chamber Choir, were killed while riding the eponymous roller coaster when an axle broke.
|Alex Wyse. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Brought back by Karnak’s powers, they are the all-about-me, overachieving Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau, of the Chicago company, replacing Taylor Louderman, who quit because of “creative differences”); her pal, the overweight, insecure Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo, a powerhouse when she lets down her crinkly hair for “Sugarcloud”); the sexy, crotch-clutching, Ukranian hip-hopper, Mischa Bachinsky (Gus Halper, resembling a young Kevin Bacon); the handicapped nerd Ricky Potts (Alex Wyse), whose inner person is a galactic superhero with lighted cat ears and a Ziggy Stardust vibe; the effeminate Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), who gets to overdo a drag number as a French whore in a black, silk slip; and the anonymous, unidentified (she was decapitated) Jane Doe (Emily Rohm), carrying a headless doll and played like an automaton with blinking eyes but showing off a mean soprano for “The Ballad of Jane Doe.”
|Kholby Wardell. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Toying with the dead teens’ hopes and desires, the mischievously godlike Karnac asks each kid to explain why he or she should be given a second chance to live, although only one will be granted this boon. Each in turn then pulls a lever at Karnak’s side, causing photos from their life to roll before us along the upstage proscenium borders like figures on a slot machine, before they sing and dance their story, the eclectic score varying according to the tastes and personality of the character. Each gets a chance to shine and to provide a deeper backstory than we might otherwise imagine. Much of it is banal but now and then something touching hits a nerve.
|Emily Rohm. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
When the show is singing and dancing, and being creatively theatrical (including a revolving stage), it sparkles. (Michael Curry Design & Hat Rabbit Studio are credited with “Special Effects and Illusions.”) It’s the book passages, though, especially those that go on too long, that hold the show down. The music, while always enjoyable, is generic but several numbers are nonetheless showstoppers, particularly the surrealistic one performed by Jane, when she flies out over the audience and even does a pinwheel in midair.
|Gus Halper, Lllian Castillo, Emily Rohm, Kholby Wardell, Alex Wyse, Tiffany Tatreau. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
Ride the Cyclone didn’t exactly spin my wheels but it did for many in the audience, including my companion. It's not as thrilling as New York’s own Cyclone, a Coney Island landmark, but you may still find it worth the ride.
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher Street, NYC
Through December 29