Life is like a rollercoaster — lots of ups and downs. A new musical making its QC area premiere is a thrill ride of its own.
Director Shelley Cooper (assistant professor of musical theater at Augustana College) is a veteran performer at Fringe Festivals in Florida and California, and “Cyclone” shares that fresh, experimental Fringe vibe.
“To me, I think of Fringe as the place to go to take some risks,” she said Tuesday. “It’s lower budget, but to me, lower budget is where you see the magic. You have to work, like in this space.”
According to a show synopsis, “In this hilarious and outlandish story, the lives of six teenagers from a Canadian chamber choir are cut short in a freak accident aboard a rollercoaster. When they awake in limbo, a mechanical fortune teller invites each to tell a story to win a prize like no other — the chance to return to life.”
The world premiere production (book, music and lyrics are by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell) took place in Victoria, British Columbia at Atomic Vaudeville in 2008, Toronto in 2011 and toured Western Canada in 2013 — winning numerous awards in the process.
A review said “this delightfully weird and just plain delightful show…will provide the kind of thrills we look for in all musical comedies, however outlandish their subject matter: an engaging and varied score, knocked out of the park by a superlative cast, and a supremely witty book.”
Love at first sight
Cooper has friends who aren’t into musicals who love “Ride the Cyclone.”
She got to see the Off-Broadway production in New York in 2016, and one of her high school friends was lighting designer for it. “I loved it. I thought it was something so different,” Cooper said. “Every song is a different style. It was so theatrical, a breath of fresh air.”
The show’s humor comes from the witty dialogue.
“There’s a lot of funny one-liners the characters have,” Cooper said. “It’s just relatable. We all remember our high-school days.”
“It’s smart – it’s not toilet humor,” she said. “There’s some cynicism to it, sure.”
The lighting and projections for the BBT show are by Augie student Roger Pavey, Jr., who worked with Cooper for her Mississippi Bend Players show, “Mary and Ethel: How I Learned to Sing” in 2021.
The lighting effects are vital, since “Cyclone” is set in a purgatory, afterlife. The first scene is the kids dying in a rollercoaster.
The songs range in style from Kesha, ‘70s prog rock, to ‘30s French noir, to ‘60s girl groups and hip-hop, Cooper said.
The message of the story is: “Life is not a game to be won, but a ride to enjoy with all of its ups and downs,” she said. “You get to know these characters and what they’ve gone through. Even though they’re teenagers, everyone from whatever walk of life or whatever age will be able to relate to not being able to fit in, or being that perfectionist, or being a people pleaser, or feeling abandoned.”
“I’m in my 30s and I can completely relate,” Cooper said. “It’s the same stuff we’re still dealing with.”
At the Black Box, music director is Katie Griswold; production design is by Lora Adams, specialty painting by Sara Nicole Wegener and Tom Vaccaro, and stage management by Synth Gonzalez.
The cast includes Taylor Lynn as Ocean, Jacqueline Isaacson as Jane Doe, Eli Bates as Noel, Brandon Smith as Mischa, Ryan Hurdle as Ricky, Abby Bastian as Constance and Doug Kutzli as Karnak.
“I have wanted to do this show for quite a while and one night while Shelley was performing ‘La Divina’ at The Black Box I happened to say ‘There’s this show I want to do that no one has heard of’,” Adams said recently.
Cast and crew reflections
Stage manager Synth Gonzalez, a rising Augustana senior, is working her third production with Cooper, after assistant directing “Threepenny Opera” at the Rock Island college this past spring.
“I think we’re both easygoing; we both go with the flow,” Gonzalez said. “Shelley is just easy to work with. We always get it done and it’s always great.”
Her experience includes interning with Mississippi Bend Players at Augie and stage managing Spotlight Theatre’s “Lightning Thief” earlier this year.
“It’s kind of rad working with a cast that’s just my age,” she said of the new BBT show. “It’s a lot of fun and I feel like you guys listen to me the most out of anyone I’ve ever worked with.”
Taylor Lynn is a Bettendorf High alum who recently graduated from University of South Dakota, a musical theater major. Her role in “Ride the Cyclone” is very selfish.
“She does grow to understand not everything is about her; there’s more to life than just her,” Lynn said. “She’s a very self-absorbed person. Her parents are more hippie-dippie, concerned with others, bringing peace and joy to the world.”
“I fell in love with this show when I first heard it,” she said. “The music is so good; I would stay up with my friend watching the bootleg.”
“It’s such a new show and not many theaters have done it so far, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Lynn said. “All the stars aligned.”
The 60-seat BBT is perfect for this show, given its intimacy, where the small audience is up close and personal with the actors.
“You feel a part of the show more than if you were watching the show in a proscenium stage,” Lynn said. “Doing it in a theater like this is just amazing. You really get to connect with an audience and the audience gets to connect with you.”
One of the “Cyclone” writers wanted to make a show about grief (after his sister died), but didn’t want to make a sad show, Gonzalez said. “He had this quote saying, I wanted to make a show that lifts people up when they leave, the way a rollercoaster does. Him working through the grief of losing his sister, that’s where he found the core of the show.”
Lynn said there’s a lot of styles and influences throughout the show, including musically and visually.
“There are pieces that are real, things that have come before, coming together,” she said.
“This show has something for everybody,” said Eli Bates, another Augie rising senior. “I feel whether it’s a song you enjoy the style of, or a character you really feel close to – there are so many moments that are relatable for the audience.”
“Everything is so dark, and everyone went through stuff when they were alive,” Lynn said. “It’s just so hilarious, because they completely turn it.”
“Really a rollercoaster”
“The show really is a rollercoaster – it does build up to really raw moments,” Bates said. “You have moments where you feel for a character, as we grow toward the end, you really get the raw, emotional side of the characters. They start to open up.”
“It’s cool to watch all these characters really realize, what I went through wasn’t all that great, but I’m content being where I’m at now,” Lynn said. “There are big monologues explaining their history and their lives.”
“They’re finding comfort being dead at 17 years old,” she said. “It’s just a very cathartic thing.”
Bates said the show is like a revue, where each character has their own story and song (similar to “A Chorus Line”). He described his character as “romance meets nihilistic, and really wants to be an alcoholic.”
“He’s the only gay guy in his high school – passionate, artsy, very nihilistic,” Bates said. “I romanticize suffering. He very much wants to be in a desperate situation.”
They all try to convince Karnak to let them have another chance at life.
Ryan J. Hurdle, who just graduated Augie as a theater major, plays a character who had a disease that prevented him from speaking or walking, and in the afterlife, he can walk and talk. “It’s pretty chill for him,” he said. “In life, he just lived in his head. He had a lot of fantasies and dreams.”
“I love original musicals that aren’t based off movies,” Hurdle said, noting he wrote an original musical done last fall outside.
Challenge of finding audiences
“Sometimes, theater can be seen as a luxury instead of just something everyone should be able to see,” Gonzalez said. “A show that is so new, you’ve fallen in love with, you want to get everybody in here. I think the biggest thing is, people don’t know the show. Even describing it, it’s the tip of the iceberg.
“You have to come see it to get everything,” she said.
“It’s fun to work on something so new, because there are so many theaters in the area,” Lynn said. “It’s like no one else is doing this show, anything like this show.”
In college, she got to do an original contemporary retelling of a Greek tragedy.
“There was something about it being new, that still brought people in, so I think that’s going to be a very beautiful moment – that this is such a new show and you don’t know anything about it, but there are still gonna be people who just want to experience theater, just want to see this creation.”
While not many people know it, “Ride the Cyclone” has a cult following, they said. Some people are coming from Bloomington, Ill., as well as Lynn’s friends from Vermillion, S.D. (400 miles away) to see the show.
“What’s also cool about this, it is also an empowering show — giving voices to other characters you don’t see in other shows,” she said. “There’s just something about these characters and this story that is so original.”
“When you put a bunch of different personalities together, the conflicts create interesting theater,” Cooper added of the characters. “If everyone was the same, it would be a really boring night at the theater. It’s a bunch of different people who probably wouldn’t hang out together, but they’re all in purgatory.”
The director is especially proud to work with so many Augie students and alums, working at a faster pace than she usually does for college shows.
“Seeing them flourish in this way, it’s gratifying,” Cooper said. “We talk about this all year long, so now let’s practice what we preach.”
Performances will be Aug. 11-20, Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets (Thursday $13 and all other performances $16) are available at the BBT website or at the door.