Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review: (Winnipeg) Ride the Cyclone

(photo credit: Barbara Pedrick)

Cyclone Hits Winnipeg!
...the dead rise and sing
by Edgar Governo

Ride the Cyclone: A Musical arrives in Winnipeg with hype worthy of a carnival barker—the media coverage of its current tour across Canada has a very catch-a-rising-star quality, as if you are witnessing the birth of the next great musical theatre classic. Even its programme write-up compares it to The Drowsy Chaperone, whose humble beginnings eventually led to a Tony-award winning Broadway run.

With that much build-up, disappointment might appear inevitable, so it's a great relief to be able to say that this lives up to its promise.

Victoria's Atomic Vaudeville has put together a show that is more innovative and entertaining than anything else I've seen staged at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre this season. Despite various statements by its creative team that it remains a work in progress, the production carries you along at a pace that never seems to lag or come off the rails.

The weirder it got, the more I enjoyed it

The seemingly bleak premise revolves around the six teenage members of the Saint Cassian Chamber Choir (named, naturally, after a martyr killed by his own students), who simultaneously meet their untimely demise in a freak amusement park ride accident. Now just as dead as their boom-and-bust hometown of Uranium, Saskatchewan, and stuck in a sort of musical purgatory, they are told by The Amazing Karnak (voiced by Carey Wass and puppeteered by James Insell, a mechanical fortune-teller with a somewhat more serious mandate than the soundalike Johnny Carson character) that one of them can have another chance at life...if they can prove their worth.

Regardless of such dark beginnings, I hesitate to describe this as anything like a black comedy, since its viewpoint doesn't come across as very cynical, though it's possible an earlier version of the show was more nihilistic—a brief diversion in which the characters gain points every time they mention how pointless the contest is feels out of place with the rest of the material. Instead, the multiple musical genres and fearless willingness to mix odd subject matter with a lighthearted touch brings to mind a synthesis of other musicals that go to similarly strange places: Cats, The Rocky Horror Show, Phantom of the Paradise, Little Shop of Horrors, and the songs in movies like Barbarella, Highlander, and Flash Gordon.

That synthesis is personified in the human mash-up of Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg (Rielle Braid), the closest this show gets to a main character, whose background makes her an overachiever determined to combine a Jewish upbringing with Buddhist beliefs and Marxism with Reaganomics. (Another off moment in the show comes when an impression of Reagan sounds more like Nixon.) As Ocean is happy to tell you, she's the glue holding this choir together, since they don't have much else in common. They know so little about each other that the decapitated body of one of their own is listed as Jane Doe (Sarah Jane Pelzer), in a truly unsettling performance of someone missing all of her memory and part of her humanity even in the middle of an upbeat dance number. The most offbeat, but not unwelcome, songs are performed by Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), Uranium's only (and thus most frustrated) gay teen; and Ricky Potts (Elliott Loran), who finally gets to "level up" in the afterlife where his degenerative condition and inability to speak prevented his chance to shine in the mortal realm. Another pleasant surprise was Jameson Matthew Parker, who managed to make me completely forget his appearance on the same stage in Red earlier this season in his portrayal of Ukrainian transplant (and aspiring YouTube rap star) Mischa Bachinsky. The heart of the show, however, belongs to Constance Blackwood (Kelly Hudson), "the nicest girl in town," who comes to accept her love of that town while everyone else is planning their escape.

As a fan of the Canadian Fringe circuit, I might be betraying my bias in appreciating how much Ride the Cyclone shares its sensibility, and this is probably one of the few premises that would allow for such a diverse array of musical styles—moving effortlessly and at breakneck speed between gospel, cabaret, hip-hop, glam rock, and more. The weirder it got, the more I enjoyed it, and I like any show willing to include both a boy longing to be a postwar French prostitute and a gangsta shout-out to the 306. This is the first new musical in a while that I'd be eager to see again, and the only question I had as it drew to a close was: Where can I get the soundtrack?

Ride the Cyclone runs to April 6.

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