MCC Theater has just opened “Ride the Cyclone,” an edgy comedy with a morbid hook that’s only the third musical in the company’s 30-year history—“Cyclone” comes to New York after a well-received U.S. premiere last year in Chicago.
Lest we confuse, the Cyclone in question isn’t the ride New Yorkers know from Coney Island. Rather, it’s a rickety old roller coaster up in Saskatchewan where, as the story begins, a half-dozen members of The Saint Cassian High School Chamber Choir are about to go for the final adventure of their young lives.
They’ll board at 8:17 p.m., and, as we learn from a cynical fortune-telling machine, the front axle on their car will break, sending them all into musical-theater purgatory. That’s where most of the of the 90-minute piece by writers Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond transpires.
That machine, Karnak (Karl Hamilton, doing excellent work with hinged, tin man-like movements) plays fast and loose with the rules, but makes it known that the six students here in carny netherworld are playing a game, and that one and only one will have the opportunity to cheat death.
In the dozen musical numbers that follow, we hear each of the students articulate the dreams they had for their future selves and their own occasional pleas to Karnak to be spared. It wouldn’t be overstating matters to call the overall vibe here “Final Destination,” with a dash of “Cats.”
Ocean (Tiffany Tatreau) is an overachiever; Constance (Lillian Castillo) an outcast; Noel (Kholby Wardell) is the town’s only homosexual; Mischa (Gus Halper) has yet to meet the fiance he discovered online; and Ricky (Alex Wyse) has a degenerative disease that has left him unable to speak, though he’s somehow made it into the choir, anyway.
Also on hand is a sixth student, a ghostly creature called Jane Doe (Emily Rohm). We learn that only her headless body was found in the carnage of the roller coaster accident. None of the community members seem to know who she is.
The young actors are skilled and charismatic beyond their years, in particular Wardell, as Noel, who dreams of a life as some sort of Sally Bowles, where he can be an entertainer, supported and abused by rich patrons in Weimar Germany. In Canada, well ... he works at the local Taco Bell, which, we learn, intends to cater his funeral for free. Ah, the indignity.
Rohm’s Jane Doe wows in the production’s most startling number, flying in the air attached to a beam that’s almost entirely invisible thanks to skilled lighting work. It’s theater magic that helps make us remarkably sympathetic to the character, a young girl with an ice cold vibrato who has left no impression on the people around her while alive. The other kids have no idea who she is.
The atmosphere jerks from song to song, so there’s a Busby Berkeley-esque sequence with synchronized dancing, then a number that might be suited to a David Bowie movie. As things wrap up, a winner is chosen. A photo montage shows that person passing through the stages of life the other teens will be denied.
The point, as Castillo’s earth-bound Constance makes pointedly, is that it’s fine to hold onto dreams, but we’d be wise to make the most of the quotidian existence we may have, because life comes with no guarantees. That's a message that can’t be heard enough: there’s joy to be found in the mundane.
“Ride the Cyclone,” through Dec. 29 at MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. Tickets: $49-$150. Call 212-727-7722.
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