How highly or wholly original can a show be, when it’s so readily likened to any number of others? The marketing tactic of inviting comparisons between one show and another, or the tendency of some reviewers to do so, is tricky: “If you liked (that), you’re going to love (this)!” But doesn’t it work both ways? What if you really loved (that)? Will you like (this) as much?
Scripted by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, who also co-wrote its exhilarating music and lyrics, the conceptual conceit of “Ride the Cyclone” is no secret — and, even if it were, it’s quickly revealed within the first couple of minutes anyway: Five high school students from Uranium City, Saskatchewan, members of the St. Cassian Chamber Choir, are killed in a freak accident, when an amusement-park roller coaster fatefully malfunctions.
As directed for the Alliance Theatre by Leora Morris, the show casts such a captivating spell that, had the Alliance’s publicity materials not mentioned it in advance, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” might never have occurred to me, just because it’s another musical in which the adolescent characters are portrayed by adult actors.
On the one hand, it’s probably impossible that most members of the audience won’t think about the movie “Big” (or its inevitable musical stage version), once a precognitive fortune-telling machine named the Amazing Karnak materializes, offering each of the kids a chance to state/sing his or her case for deserving a second shot at life.
On the other hand, should that plot turn remind anybody of the jukebox musical “Forever Plaid” — in which the members of the ’60s pop band are killed in a bus accident and find themselves in a similar purgatorial audition — in “Ride the Cyclone,” most of the characters’ personal stories register much more warmly or profoundly, and not nearly so trivially.
The promotional assertion that there’s some kind of thematic connection to “Avenue Q” is, frankly, pushing it a bit. And, although I didn’t watch “Glee” on TV, I’ve also heard from a few people who did that some of these “Cyclone” characters are reminiscent of some of those.
The first staged production of the show debuted in a British Columbia cabaret back in 2009 and subsequently led to a couple of lengthy Canadian tours in 2011 and 2013. The 2015 American premiere opened at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater, followed by remounts at the MCC Theater off-Broadway (2016) and ACT Theatre in Seattle (2017).
Director Morris’ Alliance cast is largely comprised of actors who’ve practically made a career of performing their roles. Kholby Wardell (who plays the gay Noel Gruber), for instance, has been with the show since its tour of Canada. Tiffany Tatreau (fantastic as the overachieving Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg), Lillian Castillo (sweet and then heartbreaking as the self-effacing Constance Blackwood), Karl Hamilton (as Karnak) and Emily Rohm (as the sad “mystery contestant” Jane Doe) have been on board since Chicago.
New to this ensemble is Scott Redmond (as the physically impaired Ricky Potts) and the token Atlanta actor Chaz Duffy (splendid as the Ukrainian bad boy Mischa Bachinski).
None of their alternately confessional and confrontational songs is listed in the playbill. All of them are executed well (accompanied by music director Greg Matteson’s four-piece band), but the least persuasive solos are those that veer too far over the top: Redmond’s Ricky wants to live on as a comic book superhero, while Wardell’s Noel longs to return as a depraved drag queen.
The most striking and haunting scenes in “Ride the Cyclone,” musically as well as dramatically, involve Rohm, a lilting soprano whose tragic presence as Jane Doe is emotionally ravaging and, ultimately, utterly unique — I dare say quite unlike anything else you’ve ever seen before in any other show.