“The Saint Cassian High School Chamber Choir will board the Cyclone roller coaster at 8:17pm. At 8:19 the front axle will break, sending them to their tragic demise,” reads the plot description of Ride the Cyclone, the new musical featuring book, music, and lyrics by Canadian collaborators Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell.
MCC Theater, along with Broadway producer Kevin McCollum, present the New York premiere of the unconventional musical that had its U.S. premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the fall of 2015.
Critics praised the production, with the New York Times calling it, “unceasingly delightful,” and characterizing the book and score worthy of receiving “straight A’s across the board.”
The Off-Broadway cast includes Chicago cast members Lillian Castillo, Karl Hamilton, Emily Rohm, and Kholby Wardell, who are joined by a group of New York actors, including Peter Pan Live’s Taylor Louderman, Deaf West’s Spring Awakening star Alex Wyse, Gus Halper, The Last Ship’s Johnny Newcomb, and Peter and the Starcatcher’s Emily Walton.
Even with its bleak description, Ride the Cyclone is a comedy—albeit a dark one.
“I’ve always been obsessed with small-town fair grounds, but I also wanted to dramatize a senseless tragedy, something that didn’t have a rhyme or reason to it,” says Maxwell. “I think that that happens a lot more in human existence than we accept. It’s hard to actually tell that story. What we wanted to do was to find the joy and the individuality within each of these characters and to explore that they weren’t perfect. We also have a tendency to eulogize the dead as a saint, and that’s not always true either.”
Richmond teamed up with local songwriter Maxwell to create the musical. “The original version was a song cycle about a group of ragtag characters from a small town, and each had their own style, so the song-styles are varied,” explains Richmond of the version that used a fortune telling booth as a dramatic framing device. “It didn’t have as much storyline or arch.”
“Basically, it was a showcase with the setting of Karnak the Fortune Telling machine bringing them all back to life to sing about their lives in song. And, in the original incarnation, they all got back into the roller coaster formation and then there was a black out,” Richmond says.
With the aid of Broadway producer Kevin McCollum, who is known for taking risks on such unknown titles as Rent, Avenue Q, In the Heights, and Hand to God, the writers began to craft a plot that would string the songs together as part of a complete dramatic evening.
“He’s been an early champion of the work,” Richmond says. “He’s an amazing force when he’s in the room. He has such an optimistic vision. He just shoots out a thousand ideas, of which we’re in a position to filter and find the ones that provoke us and inspire us to the next direction.”
Last fall, Maxwell and Richmond test-drove the musical’s new dramatic structure in a new production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater helmed by director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell. She’s been working with McCollum and the show’s writers to get Ride the Cyclone ready for New York audiences to climb on board.
Karnak the Fortune Teller remains key to Ride the Cyclone. In the latest incarnation, the mechanical wish-granter beckons the newly-dead back to life in a purgatory-eqsue vaudeville cabaret where the stakes are at an all-time high.
According to Rockwell, “They’re at the moment of becoming. They are trapped in this hormonal, frantic, confused, and interesting place.”
The characters are a batch of classic hometown archetypes (the popular/successful girl, the nicest girl, and the town romantic), who are thrown in along with some dramatic wild cards: a Ukrainian student who loves gangster rap, a student battling a rare degenerative disease, and the mysterious Jane Doe.
Maxwell adds, “It’s been called a dark comedy, but that doesn’t reflect the joy and exuberance that’s also in it.”
“The show is a ride itself,” says Rockwell. “The whole premise of the show is that life is not a game, it’s a ride.”
Ride the Cyclone opens December 1 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Visit MCCTheater.org.