The Saint Cassian Chamber Choir visits Atlanta
Story by Julie Bookman | Photos by A’riel Tinter
The very premise of Ride the Cyclone, which launched a decade ago in a cabaret form in Victoria, British Columbia, is weirdly-wacky enough to make one’s stomach churn as if it has just endured one of the trippiest roller coasters, like, perhaps, the Goliath (“must be 54 inches to ride”), at Six Flags Over Georgia.
This show probes the plights of six teenagers who not long before comprised the small Saint Cassian Chamber Choir from the dying town of Uranium City (‘in the middle of nowhere”), Saskatchewan. The six had climbed aboard the Cyclone coaster, but soon thereafter its front axle broke, the coaster derailed at the apex of the loop-de-loop, and the kids all plummeted to their deaths.
Ever since, they’ve been stuck in a kind of purgatory. Now does this sound like fun stuff, or what? In his New York Times review of the 2016 Off-Broadway production, Charles Isherwood called Cyclone “a delightfully weird and just plain delightful show,” also praising the “engaging and varied score.” Music, lyrics, and book are by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell.
“What we’ve found,” says Richmond, “is that some people who don’t love musicals really like this musical.” In their purgatory limbo, the dead teens encounter The Amazing Karnak, a fortune-teller character from a carnival arcade machine. (Think of Zoltar in the movie Big, or, as Cyclone’s stage notes suggest, “an ominous mechanical Santa Claus — or God — or Hal 3000.”)
Ride the Cyclone, which tops off the Alliance Theatre’s 50th anniversary season, defies categorization. Enhanced by eerily presented carnival-scene video projections and images of the kids’ former lives, it’s largely a series of solo turns by each of the deceased choir members. The Amazing Karnak becomes a sort of game show host. He has devised a bizarre contest in which the doomed youngsters are to each make a case for themselves. (And they’ll spew forth a boatload of adolescent angst while at it). The grand prize: One of them will get to return to the world of the living.
While so many shows stick to a likeminded musical style and sensibility, the campy Cyclone is an exception. Its songs ricochet between rap, jazz, pop rock, and hip-hop. One character even has a serious operatic turn.
The six tragic teens represent about every high school persona you can think of — “so you will find yourself in at least one of the characters,” Richmond says. “You kind of have an idea of who you were in high school, so you’re going to find something to relate to.” For example, there’s Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg, the over-achiever who sings a catchy pop number about how the world needs more super people like her (“What the World Needs”): “I’m the mover, I’m the shaker, / I’m the headline maker.” There’s Noel Gruber, the lone queer kid who was stuck working at a Taco Bell, but who’d had secret dreams about another kind of edgy, dramatic life. And there’s Mischa Bachinski, a Ukranian bad boy rapper, full of rage and passion that hides his “wounded, fragile heart.”
The idea is for the audience to feel like the show itself, which Richmond has called “an unruly beast,” is its own sort of thrill ride. “We wanted it to be full of the unpredictable, like the unexpected twists of a roller coaster.”
Cyclone was a quick hit: “the most uproarious and outrageous musical Canada has ever produced,” said Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper. Some who’ve seen Cyclone have sensed shades of quirky shows like Little Shop of Horrors, Urinetown, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Following a Canadian tour, the show was flushed into a more narrative form by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The late Rachel Rockwell, a leading musical theater director in the Windy City, earned a best director award for helming the 2015 Chicago production, which marked the show’s U.S. premiere.
Rockwell went on to direct both a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway run in 2016, and another production last year in Seattle. She had agreed to direct the Alliance production, but lost her life to ovarian cancer a year ago, just as Cyclone’s Seattle run was winding down. “Losing Rachel was heartbreaking to the cast, to us all,” Richmond says. “She had an incredible heart and love for this piece. I adored her and trusted her 100 percent. She was a lovely human being and everyone misses her very much.”
As Cyclone has gone from coast to coast, a number of its cast members have stuck with their roles. Five of the seven cast members in the Alliance production have appeared in previous productions, including Karl Hamilton, who plays The Amazing Karnak.
Leora Morris, a former Yale Directing Fellow at the Alliance who recently directed the company’s giddy The Dancing Granny and the delightful Crossing Delancey, has stepped up to oversee this Cyclone. Richmond asserts that Cyclone opens itself wide to directorial creativity, so he’s excited to see what Toronto native Morris will bring to the demented comedy.
Did Richmond and co-creator Maxwell ever consider it tricky to achieve the right balance between macabre subject matter and high humor? Did they ever worry about giving laughs to something that was a tad too dark? “You know, I never separated the two,” Richmond says. “Life is really funny, but also, it’s incredibly sad. What we joke about is also what we cry about.”
Still, he adds, keen attention was paid to making sure that the humor was never meanspirited. “At the end of the day, this show is a really good time,” he says. “As morbid as the theme is, hopefully it will make you happy. You’re going to get surprises and some weird, gothicky stuff. There is a sadness, but you also will find yourself exploring some of your own fears in a really new and exciting way. It’s not going to depress you, but you may find yourself thrown off balance — I think that’s the thing.”
So you’re best advised to strap yourself in tight and just enjoy the ride.