Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Smokey Joe's Cafe
The premise of Ride the Cyclone, with music and lyrics by Brooke Gladstone and Jacob Richmond and a witty book by Richmond, is bizarre, but you would do well not to be put off by that. A group of five high school students from the fictional St. Cassian High School in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, are members of the school's competitive choral groupthink "Glee" with Catholic school uniformscelebrating their most recent competition at an amusement park by riding the big roller coaster, The Cyclone, when a malfunction sends them all hurtling to their death.
In the next world they are greeted by The Amazing Karnak, a mechanized fortune teller residing in a glass phone booth-like boxyou know, a mannequin with a tall swami's head wrap that tells ersatz fortunes in exchange for depositing a coin in the slot. They are joined by a sixth student, a girl who doesn't recall who she isor, rather, wasin life because she had been decapitated in the accident (hang on, nothing gory is on display), and none of the other kids know who she is either.
Karnak reveals that one of them will be allowed to return to his or her life, the one who makes the best case for having another shot at living past the age of 17. What follows is each student's moment in the spotlight as we learn about who they were to the rest of St. Cassian's and who they were in their own minds. As is typical of such a set-up, there is a range of types: Ocean Rosenberg a take-charge queen bee with a high opinion of herself; Misha, a bad-boy Ukrainian immigrant; Ricky, a boy paralyzed by a congenital condition, but with a rich inner life; Noel, the only homosexual in Uranium City; Constance, a nice but awkward and self-deprecating girl, who is Ocean's best friend, as Ocean constantly reminds Constance while itemizing her shortcomings; and the enigmatic decapitated girl, dubbed Jane Doe.
The ninety-minute musical uses the first few of its delightfully satiric musical numbers to establish the choir, their day at the amusement park, and their abrupt journey through space into the next world. Every aspect of the staging contributes to a wacky whole that manages to get the audience to suspend disbelief long enough to care about these kids. Sarah Rasmussen's direction exudes great affection for each of these characters, and keeps the entire ensemble continuously engaged. Jim Lichtsheidl's choreography playfully enhances the proceedings, sometimes displaying the awkwardness of this group of unlike teens thrown together, other times drawing out the hot desires and ambitions they harbor.
Lichtscheidl also plays Karnak, making great use of his talent for physical comedy enacting the herky-jerky movement and low-affect speech of the mechanized soothsayer. The actors who play the six youths hoping for a chance to return to the lives they led are perfectly cast. Shinah Brashears has a brassy belt of a voice, beating the drum for herself as Ocean in "What the World Needs," and conveys the smug conceit of someone who has every intention of being kind to her inferiors. Gabrielle Dominique is heartbreaking as downhearted Constance, conveying both genuine goodness and spiraling despair, and reaching an epiphany in "Sugarcloud." Michael Hanna's strong bearing and physique, and well-tuned Ukrainian accent, create a convincing delinquent ("This Song Is Awesome") with romantic love secreted within his heart ("Talia").
As Jane Doe, Becca Hart draws our pity with the mournful "Ballad of Jane Doe," while moving with zombie-like jerkiness, unable to coordinate her head and body. Jordan M. Leggett has spent his first year in Minneapolis working on various stages, and let's hope he sticks around. He brings genuine warmth and humor to severely disabled Ricky, his feelings locked in during life, who comes fully alive after death as a "Space Aged Bachelor Man." Josh Zwick completes the ensemble as Noah, projecting deep loneliness mixed with a streak of arrogance that keeps his self-esteem aloft. His tour-de-force, "Noel's Lament," is an almost cinematic journey into his inner life. These actors convince us that, aside from Ocean and Constance, none of these kids were friends outside of their choir, but that, thrown together as they are, they are able to look into one another's spirits and develop something akin to empathy.
A terrific design team melds Chelsea M. Warren's sets that look ripped from the pages of a coloring book, Marcus Dilliard's lighting suitable for both a carnival and the hereafter, and Sean Healey's sound design with bells, whistles, and the sounds of cosmic transcendence. Paul Bigot's wig and makeup design is especially winning in creating a kewpie doll head of hair for Jane Doe.
Projection designer Kathy Maxwell, working with videographer Max Collyard, generates fantastic images that enhance the entire production. The cumulative affect creates an effervescent sense of the group's transition from the pleasures of their mundane lives to the curiously comfortable next world, and into their own inner lives as each of the youths acts, sings, and dances out their story.
As we see each of these teenagers presenting a case for the value, realized or potential, of their lives, we feel the frustrations and aspirations that are universal to young people inching toward adulthood, whether they be queen bee or underling, repressed queer or dangerous dude. But Ride the Cyclone does not aim to be a deep dive into adolescent psychology. It takes a potpourri of real feelings, scrambles them into a wacky and imaginative scenario, and gives its audience a great time. To its credit, finding the humor in each charactereven KarnakMaxwell and Richmond's book and score do not lampoon any of them, but make them relatable and endearing. They also manage to wrap things up with a conclusion that is wholly life affirming, even if in this case, it comes after death.
I admit, I had a hard time believing that a musical about six kids killed in a roller-coaster accident would be laden not only with fun but with heart. But there you have it, Ride the Cyclone is just that, a musical full of fun and heart. And, keep those seat belts nice and tight.
Ride the Cyclone runs through October 20, 2019, at the Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $40.00 - $50.00. Seniors (60+) and students with ID, $5.00 discount. Special Friday night discounts: patrons under age 30 and for residents of zip code 55408, $25.00; high school and college students (with valid ID), $20.00. Rush tickets: available two hours before performance for unsold seats, $25.00, $20.00 . For tickets call 612- 822-7073 or go to www.jungletheater.com.
Music and Lyrics: Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond; Book: Jacob Richmond; Director: Sarah Rasmussen; Music Director: Mark Christine; Choreography: Jim Lichtscheidl; Set Design: Chelsea M. Warren; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Designer: Sean Healey; Wig and Makeup Design: Paul Bigot; Projection Design: Kathy Maxwell; Videographer: Maxwell Collyard; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Matthew Erkel; Production Manager: Matthew Earley; Assistant Director: Sheena Janson Kelley; Assistant Music Director: Raymond Niu;
Cast: Shina Brashears (Ocean), Gabrielle Dominique (Constance), Michael Hanna (Mischa), Becca Hart (Jane), Jordan M. Leggett (Ricky), Jim Lichtscheidl (Karnak), Josh Zwick (Noel).