Ride The Cyclone

By Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell. Director: Richard Carroll. Hayes Theatre. 28 May – 22 June, 202

Reviewed : 28 May, 2024*

Photo : Prudence Upton

Disembodied pieces of rollercoaster rail coil on Benjamin Brockman’s set in a deepening curved void reaching back to a circular screen. Wooden frames surround them. Smokey haze hovers and drifts and loud music thumps as the Hayes Theatre continues its commitment to bringing “the extraordinary to life” in this premiere production of Ride the Cyclone.

The Cyclone is a rollercoaster that has malfunctioned. Six Canadian teenagers have been killed, but they are stuck in the afterlife at the mercy of Karnak, a fortune telling automaton, who sets them to compete against each other for the chance for one of them to return to life, a decision they must make themselves before Karnak herself dies. A rat called Virgil has been chewing at her power cable, and it won’t be long before bites through to 200 volts!

An unusual beginning for a musical, but it reveals stories of hurt and happiness as the teenagers sing about their short lives and what they have achieved – or hoped to achieve. It’s poignant, but punchy and cleverly funny and director Richard Carroll ensures that the pace matches the poignancy and the punch. With musical director Victoria Falconer and choreographer Shannon Burns, the cast is set a challenging pace, which they meet unflinchingly – as well as finding the varied dimensions of their characters which Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell have skilfully written into the lyrics.

The teenagers come from the town of “Uranium” in Saskatchewan. Five were members of the St Cassians High School chamber choir. The sixth, whose head was decapitated in the accident, has not been identified, so has been labelled “Jane Doe”. As Karnak summons them, they reveal things about themselves that might make others give them the chance to go back.

Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg is the first – as she feels she should be. Ocean is an over-achiever, with an ego to match. She feels she should be the ‘chosen one’ to return to the world because people like her are “What the World Needs”. Karis Oka makes Ocean proud and very self-assured, oblivious to the hurt she inflicts with her egotistic arrogance and the disdain with which she puts others down.

Noel Gruber, played by Bailey Dunnage, the only gay teenager in the town, hides his loneliness in the dream of being a French prostitute who dies at the end of his song, “Noel’s Lament”. Dunnage makes the transformation from trapped teen to sexy vamp via a pair of heels, a silk gown and movement in a song that is suggestive, seductive … and just a little sad.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Lincoln Elliott is Ukrainian migrant Mischa Bachinski, whose mother, dying of radiation poisoning after cleaning up in Chernobyl, gives up her teenage son for adoption. Mischa is violent and drinks too much – and is not the toddler his adoptive parents expected! Elliott makes him angry, expressing his rage in heavy, dark raps like “This Song is Awesome”. He paces, flipping his hair, his dark eyes flashing the resentment he feels – then softening as he sings more gently to his online Ukrainian girlfriend “Talia”. Elliott has a strong stage presence and perceptive sense of ensemble.

Ricky Potts, played by Justin Gray, is a shy student who never talks because of some childhood trauma. In limbo, he loses his muteness and sings of how visitors from outer space chose him to save “the sexy cat women of Zolar”. Gray shows Ricky shedding his shy silence and becoming more confident, proud of his “Space Age Bachelor Man” persona and how he has returned to earth “to lead you pretty people To a brighter day”.

In “The Ballad of Jane Doe” Ava Madon becomes the poor teenager who is worrying that her soul “Is rotting somewhere with her head”. “No name,” she sings, “and no story, what a shame.” Madon holds a headless doll, symbolic of her plight, as she stares through large, frightened eyes, their emptiness enhanced by Ashleigh Grace’s subtle make up.

Hesitant and lost, she reaches out in song for “anyone to tell me who I am.”

Photo : Prudence Upton

The last to be called by Karnak is Constance, who despite being so often put down by Ocean, has always hidden her hurt and appeared happy. Mel O’Brien and Natalie Abbott will both appear as Constance on different nights in this production. On opening night it was Mel O’Brien who took Ocean’s condescension and charmed the audience with Constance’s quirky humour and childish giggles, then, in her song “Jawbreaker” explained that her optimism came from her ability to find joy in things … like the roller coaster ride itself, and “hanging upside down from monkey bars” and “being in the choir at the height of the Hallelujah Chorus.” The character of Constance epitomises the meaning of the word itself and O’Brien makes her very special.

These six lost ‘souls” are controlled by a human shape holding a shining crystal ball and a commanding ghostly voice that appears to issue from it. The voice of Karnak is familiar to many audiences in the theatre and on screens. There is no voice more recognisable that that of Pamela Rabe. As Karnak she gives her voice a velvet vibrancy that quietly but powerfully compels … until she counts out her own death as one of the teenagers returns to life and that base rat Virgil finally chews through the cable.

Ride the Cyclone is a bright, loud, hazy, musical ride with moments of quiet reflection that burst back into song and movement and blazing light. Another star for the Hayes’ bright firmament!

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

*Opening performance