I never liked rollercoasters, until I rode the Cyclone.
No, I never strapped into the famed amusement park ride in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, but I mean the new musical rollercoaster called “Ride the Cyclone” at downtown Moline’s Black Box Theatre.
It’s an absolutely thrilling, exhilarating production – unlike anything I’ve ever seen, a kind of “Glee” meets “Survivor.”
A Playbill synopsis describes this wondrous breath of fresh air this way – “Part comedy, part tragedy—and wholly unexpected—this wildly imaginative story delivers surprises at every turn. The lives of six teenagers from a Canadian chamber choir are cut short in a freak accident aboard a roller coaster.
“A mechanical fortune-teller invites each to tell their story of a life interrupted — offering the chance to come to terms with their fates. At once quirky and smart, edgy and beautiful, ‘Ride the Cyclone’ ultimately reveals the resilience of the human spirit in spite of senseless tragedy.”
When the world-premiere cast recording of the musical came out last year, co-creator Brooke Maxwell (who partnered with Jacob Richmond on the blazingly original book, music and lyrics) told Playbill: “Sounds dark, but it’s pretty much a celebration of life.”
And this is so true in the BBT version – just the 8th theater ever to do “Ride the Cyclone,” featuring a cast of six amazingly talented young performers.
The world-premiere production 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. The American premiere took place at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Directed by the late Rachel Rockwell, the production opened in 2015, and she again directed the show Off-Broadway in 2016.
Directed and choreographed by Shelley Cooper (assistant professor of musical theater at Augustana College), this new one is an enthusiastic, pitch-perfect production – an intermission-less, 90-minute fever dream in which each of the student characters gets to shine and make their case to fortune-teller Karnak for a chance at new life.
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,” Cooper said before the opening (in fact, the blissful, irresistible closing number is “It’s Just a Ride”).
“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.”
In a way, her expert, professional production is an Augustana East – as much of the cast and crew have connections to the Rock Island liberal arts college.
Among the ideal cast, Jacqueline Isaacson (Jane Doe) and Eli Bates (Noel) are Augie seniors, and Ryan J. Hurdle (Ricky) and Brandon Smith (Mischa) are grads. Music director Katie Griswold is a 2020 alum; stage manager Synth Gonzalez is an Augie senior, and lighting designer Roger Pavey Jr. (a wizard who deftly handles so many arresting lighting changes) is a junior.
This “Ride the Cyclone” is visually, musically and theatrically dazzling – including a great, colorful amusement park set by Lora Adams (BBT artistic director and co-founder), with specialty painting by Sara Nicole Wegener and Tom Vaccaro.
QC theater veteran Doug Kutzli is the deep, forbidding unseen voice of Karnak (the figure moves mechanically in a box at left), and narrator of this entertaining revue format. He also operates the sound for many of the performers who use hand-held microphones on stage.
A screen in the middle (behind a red curtain) is creatively used to introduce each character, and childhood photos of the real actors are displayed. Cleverly, the wonderful “Talia” song done by the Ukrainian student Mischa is accompanied by a photo of Griswold.
Just about every song here (each in a different musical style) is a highlight – from the super perky, upbeat “What the World Needs” by Bettendorf alum Taylor Lynn as Ocean, to the next moody French noir of “Noel’s Lament,” by Bates, who switches from his preppy school uniform into a black negligee, sparkly panty hose, black heels and black wig. That song (with rare, insistent profanity) with the ensemble, is a riot.
Smith’s exuberant, swaggering rap, “This Song is Awesome,” is fittingly awesome, and Hurdle explodes from his dark, introverted character into the electrifying, out-of-this-world “Space Aged Bachelor Man.”
Isaacson is hypnotic as a literally otherworldly Jane Doe – in white face and a blonde wig, her character in the story was found dead without a head, and her exacting movements are robotic and doll-like. Her Jane is meant to be a doll and she is a consistent wonder to watch, including a glorious transformation at the show close.
Abby Bastian beautifully rounds out the cast as Ocean’s BFF, Constance, and she is radiant in the gorgeous, immensely gratifying “Sugar Cloud.” It’s sweet, life-affirming, and includes Bastian in a recorder solo.
“Ride the Cyclone” looks like it was written for the Black Box – with its long, narrow stage, and just three rows of seats – and embodies the five-year-old theater’s willingness to take chances, present newer (and lesser-known) works, and think out of the box.
This is a ride most definitely worth taking.
Performances will continue Thursday to Saturday, Aug. 18-20 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets (Thursday $13 and all other performances $16) are available at the BBT website or at the door.