If you’re willing to get on the ride, Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond’s new musical, Ride the Cyclone, will take you to unexpected places. Chicago Shakespeare presented the U.S. premiere of the work last year, and prior to that Canada’s Atomic Vaudeville first produced the production. MCC Theater brings it to Manhattan under the deft direction/choreography of Rachel Rockwell.
The 90-minute show recounts what happens after a group of Catholic school teenagers die in a rollercoaster accident. They’ve arrived in a sort of American Idiot meets The 25th Annual Spelling Bee purgatory, and under the direction of The Amazing Karnak (Karl Hamilton), must decide which of them can return to his or her mortal life.
Leading the pack out of the gate is Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau), the group’s bratty, bossy ringleader who will say and do just about anything to secure her slot, including throwing her bestie, the apologetic Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo), under the bus. The other living dead include the emotionally volatile and soap opera-gorgeous Mischa Bachinski (Gus Halper), the formally handicapped but now virile Ricky Potts (Alex Wyse), the effeminate dark horse Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), and Jane Doe (Emily Rohm), an unidentified student who perished in the accident and hopes to claim her life and identity back.
In a somewhat formulaic structure, the kids each have an opportunity to make their cases, but Karnak continues to switch up the rules up until the very last chords are played. What makes Ride the Cyclone so wildly entertaining is what happens within each of those moments. Highlights include Mischa’s epic auto-tuned hip-hop number that eventually evolves into a Ukrainian folklore dance (with captivating projections designed by Mike Tutaj)—trust me, it makes sense when you see it. Noel pulls off a Chicago-style number in a pageboy wig, while Ricky rocks out his alter ego as an 80s space age bachelor man.
Constance is given the 11 o’clock number, which lights up the theatre with a pop ballad that leaves her on a sugar cloud, spouting lyrics like “I could puke a rainbow.” In the end, one teen enters the light, and with deep reverence we’re treated to a montage of a life not yet fully lived.
Rachel Rockwell, who’s made a name for herself in the Chicago theater scene with a list of critically acclaimed productions including Brigadoon (Goodman Theatre) and Les Misérables (Drury Lane), will now hopefully be on the radar of commercial producers. Her work here is thoughtful and nuanced as she is somehow able to unpack a treasure chest of quirkiness delivered by the authors.
Buckle in. Who knows where Ride the Cyclone may land next.
Ride the Cyclone
MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortelle Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Through December 29.