— Kelly Hudson as "Constance Blackwood". Photo credit: Fairen Berchard
RIDE THE CYCLONE
The Cyclone is back and what a ride it is.
Jacob Richmond's brilliant musical from Victoria's Atomic Vaudeville company is here for its second run in two years, co-presented by the Arts Club and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Tabbed as the next Drowsy Chaperone, a little Canadian musical with the right stuff to grow into a big Broadway hit, it's been tightened and polished and tarted up a little—not all for the better. The loss of some rough edges means the loss of some magic. Even so, there's more originality and genius in Ride the Cyclone's 90 minutes than in any half-dozen plays combined that you're likely to see this year.
The bizarre concept remains intact. A fortune-telling machine—The Amazing Karnak— tells how a group of kids from a small-town high school choir were killed when the carnival roller coaster they were riding flew off its tracks. Realizing that they're dead, each of the kids sings his or her story. In this version of the show Karnak has made it a contest, a kind of ghoulish Canadian Idol: one of them will be brought back to life, but only through the unanimous vote of the others.
Ocean (Rielle Braid), the Jewish-Catholic-Buddhist A student with a perfect attendance record, who always "did my very best/To be a little better than the rest," wants it the most. But she has tough competition.
The town's only gay kid, Noel (Kholby Wardell), transforms into his smoky alter ego, a sultry French putain in black lingerie and fishnet stockings, to perform a spectacular drag cabaret. Misha (Jameson Matthew Parker, the sole replacement from the original cast), an immigrant bad boy with a sentimental streak, raps out a song about his online Ukrainian fantasy bride, whom we see in an exquisitely choreographed black-and-white video sequence. Physically damaged Ricky (Elliott Loran) becomes Bowie-like "Bachelor Man" in his sci fi dream, accompanied by a chorus of cat people and a scintillating guitar solo from Kiaran McMillan.
Every number is imaginatively staged by co-directors Britt Small and Jacob Richmond, with exuberant choreography from Treena Stubel. Richmond also shares credit for the music and lyrics with musical director Brooke Maxwell, whose superb arrangements are responsible for much of the energy, variety and flavour.
The pace and tone shift with the final two characters. Spooky, mesmerizing Jane Doe (Sarah Jane Pelzer) was found headless and no one knows who she is. Pelzer brings a fabulous operatic voice to the character's poignant search for self in a song that could have been written by Kurt Weill. And Constance (Kelly Hudson), "the nicest girl in homeroom," turns her bitter unhappiness about her jawbreaker-like life ("you suck and you suck and you suck") into a richly transformative rock anthem that precedes the surprisingly sentimental new ending.
Every performance here is a star turn and every actor deserves an ovation. Set designers James Insell and Hank Pine and lighting designer Rebekah Johnson have really upped the ante on the visual quality of the show, and the four-piece band of rats (expanded from a single bass-playing rat in the original) provides excellent musical accompaniment. Sadly, a muddy sound system sometimes obscures Maxwell and Richmond's clever lyrics.
This latest incarnation is definitely slicker and less messy than the original, but also less wacky and less full. A barely developed plot line about the town itself—a place called Uranium—goes nowhere. We've barely been introduced to these fascinating characters when the show ends. And it's all so good we want more. It almost feels like it needs another act. But even as a work in progress, Ride the Cyclone is still a stunner.