Ride the Cyclon
Matthew Boyd Snyder (Ricky Potts), Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber), Gabrielle Dominique (Constance Blackwood), Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski), Ashlyn Maddox (Jane Doe), and Shinah Hey (Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg) in Ride the Cyclone running through March 5 at Arena Stage; Credit: Margot Schulman

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Musicals require a suspension of disbelief: You’ve got to be willing to believe that a fugitive of the law has the time and inclination to reflect on his situation in the form of a ballad, or that everyone in this town square is a particularly good hoofer. Ride the Cyclone has a premise that requires audiences to just go with it more than most. Six teens from a Canadian chamber choir meet their untimely demise while enjoying an amusement park ride called the Cyclone, and in the afterlife, a sentient fortune-telling machine explains that, after each of them has made the case for their existence (through song, of course), one of them will be allowed to reanimate. It’s a bit like American Idol meets The Breakfast Club—except all but one of these teens are toast. 

These walking adolescent tropes include an extremely type A personality, her constantly overshadowed bestie, the only queer kid in their small town, a “bad-boy” Ukrainian adoptee, a shy comic-book nerd, and a forgotten sixth choir member known only as Jane Doe, whose decapitated body went unclaimed after the coaster crash. They’re all given an introduction and backstory by the aforementioned fortune machine, the Amazing Karnak (Marc Gellar), before they perform their numbers. As the kids struggle to make sense of their situation, they ruminate on the meaning of life and death, morality, identity, and other philosophical musings. 

The wacky concept is held together by incredibly punchy musical numbers that span genres. “Space Age Bachelor Man” is a prog rock number that goes inside the imaginative inner world of the mostly mute Ricky Potts (Matthew Boyd Snyder). While his intergalactic feline fantasy requires audiences to just go with it more than almost any other part of the show, it’s a total blast, and certainly the catchiest chorus made up entirely of “meows” since the Meow Mix jingle. “What the World Needs” is a hilarious toe-tapper that proclaims the superiority of Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Shinah Hey), the self-appointed and self-involved leader of the gang. A Cabaret-esque act titled “Noel’s Lament” offers a spectacular drag showcase for Noel Gruber (Nick Martinez). “This Song Is Awesome,” as performed by bad boy Mischa Bachinski (Eli Mayer) is funnier than a rap parody has any right to be, and is all the more interesting for immediately giving way to a tender love ballad dedicated to Mischa’s online fiancee.

There’s not a weak link in this cast, but Gabrielle Dominique makes the most of her somewhat thankless role as the timid Constance Blackwood, bringing an irrepressible, bubbly energy to a character who’s a frequent punching bag. And while forgotten in her waking life, Jane Doe (Ashlyn Maddox at the performance I attended, Katie Mariko Murray at subsequent ones) is a clear standout here. She’s a hilariously unnerving presence, wandering the stage like a broken marionette and piping up with disturbing non sequiturs. She also gets the most showstopping number, a haunting aerial aria, performed while she’s suspended and spinning in the air. 

The carnival theme extends through the staging and choreography. A rotating platform that feels like a carousel propels much of the action and small screens framed like circus marquees display video art. Screens have become an indispensable if sometimes lazy tool for modern theater, and it’s common for projections to be used in place of background sets these days, but Ride the Cyclone takes this technique a bit further than most, with interesting photo collages of the contestants popping up like a video-game character selection menu for each kid’s introduction and actors seemingly entering the video scenery. 

Ride the Cyclone has developed a bit of a cult following, and watching Arena Stage’s production it’s easy to see why. It’s utterly original, hilarious, thought-provoking, and more than a little off the rails. As the final number reiterates, “it’s just a ride.”

Ride the Cyclone, written by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell and directed by Sarah Rasmussen, runs through March 5. arenastage.org. $86–$105.