In “Ride the Cyclone,” a musical that is currently being presented at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, a teenager named Ocean (Katerina McCrimmon) is a supremely overconfident overachiever who asserts, “What the world needs is people like me.”
Her high school choir mate Noel Gruber (Nick Martinez) assumes that he is the only gay person in his small town, and dreams of being a “hooker with a heart of black charcoal” in post-World War II France.
Fellow choir members Mischa (Eli Mayer) and Constance (Princess Sasha Victomé) are the school’s bad boy and nice girl, respectively, and Ricky (yannick-robin eike) has science fiction fantasies.
“Ride the Cyclone” gives them all an extended number to express their essence, as — in a plot that has been compared to “Cats” — they end up in a kind of Purgatory after dying in a rollercoaster accident, and compete for an opportunity to return to Earth. They are joined by Jane Doe (Ashlyn Maddox), who was decapitated in the accident and has no memories of her prior life (thus, her name).
Serving as the judge is the rather haughty animatronic fortune-teller The Amazing Karnak (Jeffrey Binder), who talks to them from his arcade booth. They have to make the case to him, one by one, that they are the one who should live again (though the rules of the “game” are never entirely clear).
“Ride the Cyclone” — which debuted in 2008 in Victoria, Canada, and has been presented Off-Broadway and elsewhere since then — is a work of great imagination, and is performed with great skill and energy by its cast of seven.
It’s got some very clever lines: The earnest but tactless Ocean, for instance, thanks Noel for challenging her belief “that all gay dudes are fun to be around.” Some of the musical numbers — most of all, Noel’s melodramatic turn as a cabaret chanteuse — are pretty spectacular. And it has a great deal of musical variety, with co-composers and co-lyricists Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond writing in a variety of styles, ranging from hip-hop to opera, to reflect the personality of whoever is singing.
But the musical lacks a great plot to go along with all of this (the book is also by Maxwell and Richmond). In all honesty, it’s hardly got a plot at all. And so it never really adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Sarah Rasmussen, who took over as McCarter’s artistic director in 2020, directs a McCarter offering for the first time (the pandemic delayed that milestone), overseeing a visually dazzling production with special effects, video projections, movable parts of the stage and more. Scenic designer Scott Davis has put together a set (representing a carnival warehouse) that combines the dark with the whimsical. And while costume designer Trevor Bowen has to restrict himself to school uniforms for the teens’ main outfits, he lets his imagination go wild in their spotlight musical numbers, and also pulls together a sharp sun-and-moon outfit for Karnak (see photo at right).
In the program, Rasmussen compares “Ride the Cyclone” to “Our Town,” which debuted at McCarter in 1938. That’s a bit of a stretch, I think.
Yes, there is a similarity between the two plays, regarding the theme of appreciating life. But the raucous tone of “Ride the Cyclone” couldn’t be more different from the simple, down-to-earth profundity of “Our Town.”
With its music — so eclectic you can’t even say it has an identifiable style — plus its in-your-face, reality TV-style brashness and its message about the importance of marching to your own drummer, “Ride the Cyclone” is, though, a work that says a lot about its times. (As “Our Town” was.)
And the timing worked out pretty well for this production. Because what is a pandemic, after all, if not a type of Purgatory that we have to make it through before reaching, one hopes, the next stage?
The McCarter Theatre Center will present “Ride the Cyclone” at its Berlind Theater through May 29. Visit mccarter.org.
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