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Theater Thu Oct 15 2015

Ride the Cyclone Twists & Turns Through Musical Excellence

Ride the Cyclone
Left to Right: Rusell Mernaugh as Mischa Bachiniski, Tiffany Tatreau as Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg, Lillian Castro as Constance Blackwood, Emily Rohm as Jane Doe and Jackson Evans as Ricky Potts. Photo by Liz Lauren.

In a U.S. premiere of the Canadian musical at Chicago Shakespeare, Ride the Cyclone twists and turns through musical excellence. Described as "'Glee' meets 'Survivor'," this show does not disappoint with its hairpin plot twists, its tour through musical genres of the last two centuries and an upbeat and outstanding cast of performers and tragic/comic themes.

Set in a netherworld between life and death, the musical is structured on the narrative of the St. Cassian Chamber Choir from Saskatchewan who plummet to their death on the Cyclone, the roller coaster at the theme park they were visiting on a group trip.* The production is narrated and "game-show hosted" by a carnival game, The Amazing Karnak (whose life is threatened by a giant rat with glowing eyes, whose cord-chewing propensity sets up the life cycle of the production). The production journeys through the lives of five "choir nerd" teens, who are each competing to win the grand prize, another chance at life.

With book, music and lyrics by the creative duo of Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, the show began its life as a song cycle that quickly became a cult hit in Canada. From there, the song were developed into a full length production that has enjoyed great success with audience and critics alike. The show's smart and funny approach to the musical genre makes it a delight to watch.

In the narrative, each of the choir members represents a different "type" in the show choir oeuvre and shows off a different type of music that would be featured in the performances of these teens. Cleverly structured, the musical represents a showcase of competitive choir genres and themes that modern theatergoers would be familiar with and would delight in. The show is structured so that each character gets his/her own mini-play within the play, to show their life on earth and perform a showstopping number in a specific genre. Each number was a breathless and exciting tribute to the teen's life and a chance to show off musical prowess in the genre. Expertly directed and choreographed by Chicago musical powerhouse Rachel Rockwell and the creative direction of CST's Creative Producer Rick Boynton, the performers shone throughout the show.

Some of the performer standouts included Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg (played by Tiffany Tatreau), who performed a pop celebration of her own personal perfection and overachievement--a strict contrast to her hippie parents. Also enchanting was Noel Gruber's (Kholby Wardell) gay internal fantasy life in postwar France (with himself cast as a tragic and beautiful French prostitute, inspired by New Wave cinema), which pulled from European cabaret tropes. And Misha Bachiniski (Russell Mernaugh) was hilarious as the Ukrainian immigrant whose performance displayed twin great loves: his Ukrainian fiancée Talia and his love for Eastern-European flavored gangsta rap. Also notable was the performance of Emily Rohm as Jane Doe, the unidentified teen who played the role of "unknown" with a blank and creepy demeanor and costuming/makeup (thanks to Costume, Wig and Makeup Designer Melissa Veal) reminiscent of unsettling Victorian china dolls.

Chicago Shakespeare also creates production excellence using video projection (by Projection Designer Mike Tutaj), set, prop and costume design to great effect. Each performer received a video projection treatment prior to his/her song that showed baby pictures and "life scenes" to set up their characters as more than mere types. The Amazing Karnak (played by Karl Hamilton) was a feat in theater engineering and performance which was expertly crafted as a collaboration between Scenic Designer Scott Davis and Costume Designer Melissa Veal.

Featuring a live performer as a carnival game who serves as a narrator and demented host for the "game show" to decide who should come back to life, The Amazing Karnak served as the perfect foil for the character's life recaps and helped to move the story along in a clever way. The use of narrative and the themes of carnival games reinforced the lightheartedness of the piece. It was also exciting that the show featured live musicians, playing all of the songs. Directed and led by Associate Musical Director Michael Kaish, it was an impressive and exciting addition to the show.

Overall, Ride the Cyclone is a twisting, turning adventure through musical genres and a lighthearted romp with dark humor in its heart. Fans of musicals, former showchoir geeks and theater lovers will be taken in by the piece's utter charm, relentless originality, stellar performance and outstanding production values. Highly recommended--and this would be a great show to see around Halloween, without falling into the typical Halloweeny zombie/vampire/spooky madness.

Ride the Cyclone plays at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier through Nov. 8 with shows at 7:30pm Wednesday through Friday, a 3pm matinee and 8 pm evening performance on Saturday and a 2pm matinee on Sunday. Tickets start at $38 and can be purchased online.

* A special ironic and probably-not-intended shout-out to the management at Navy Pier for removing the cars from the Ferris wheel before the night of the premiere of this play. Seeing the Ferris wheel structure in ghostly highlight against the skyline immediately preceding this show set the stage for the main narrative thrust of the broken roller coaster.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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