The long-awaited (by me) album has dropped, at last, and you can go listen to it right now; this is the piece I get to write because of that!
Ride The Cyclone is an original musical by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell that tells the story of a group of high schoolers on a chamber choir field trip to the carnival who die while riding the eponymous Cyclone, a roller coaster. The teens find themselves in purgatory, with Karnak, a fortune-telling machine, who gives them each a chance to be the one chosen to return to life.
Ride The Cyclone premiered in Vancouver in 2008, and has gone through several professional productions since then, spanning the Canada and the US, the last of which was in Minneapolis in 2019. The 2021 Album features the co-writer Jacob Richmond as Karnak, along with much of the cast from the 2019 Atlanta production, including Kholby Wardell (hi, Kholby, if you read this) who was in every major production from 2011 in Toronto to 2019 in Atlanta, in the role of Noel Gruber (but we’ll get back to that!)
First, because this is going to be overwhelmingly 1. positive and 2. spoiler-heavy, I figure I’ll start with some things that bother me about the show to balance it out and give people wary of hard spoilers an opportunity to click away.
- Casting future productions will be a very tricky endeavor, and part of that is because of how demanding the roles are, but part of that is because some of the tracks were coded to fit certain types that correspond, among other things, to the less prominent characters being more likely to be played by actors of color. Also, Ricky Potts, is vaguely disabled when alive and then not at all when dead, which I get what they were trying to do, but it wasn’t necessarily their only option. I feel like it would be an interesting choice going forward to have a disabled actor play Ricky, and be cool in purgatory without having to be able-bodied all of a sudden in order to be cool.
- I didn’t have steady access to the music until now in written or recording format, and still don’t have the script! There’s a line I think about often where Ricky says something about “the only rule in my religion is don’t be a dick” and I want to know if it’s still in there, along with Misha’s backstory and so many other great moments. “That’s more of an I need people to do this show and have accessible materials so I can relive it” complaint.
But there is a recording! A recording that now I’m going to talk about.
Firstly: here’s the whole cast of the recording:
- Misha Bachinski played by Chaz Duffy
- Constance Blackwood played by Lillian Castillo
- Jane Doe played by Emily Rohm
- Noel Gruber played by Kholby Wardell
- Ocean O’Connell-Rosenberg played by Tiffany Tatreau
- Ricky Potts played by Scott Redmond
- and The Amazing Karnak played by Jacob Richmond
Now, for a track-by-track talk.
“Karnak’s Dream of Life” is a carnival prelude of sorts, (kind of like Carousel, musical theatre nerds!) and Jane Doe starts and ends the show here with the same lyrics and melody, “I know this dream of life is never-ending, it goes around and round and round again” only the first time we here it, it doesn’t resolve…
“Welcome,” as well as the other dialogue tracks, “Jane Doe’s Entrance,” “Meet Noel Gruber,” “Meet Ricky Potts,” “Meet Jane Doe,” and “Still Here?” are somewhat metatheatrical and give the listener plot context for the songs.
“The Uranium Suite” is the technical “opening number” that has been through many iterations over the years, and is the diegetic song performed by the choir, going into their death, which is never actually shown. It gives us our first taste of tight harmonies and also features motifs that will show up again, including another refrain that will come back again at the end: “and then you’re sailing through space, you don’t know up from down, and you feel a little strange, from all that spinning round, and everything you loved, and everything you dreamed, and everything you feared, and everything that seemed so, oh, so terrifying…”
“What the World Needs.” Before the conceit of the competition is fully explained (i.e. that it’ll be put to a unanimous vote who gets to live and not up to Karnak), Ocean volunteers to plead her case in a bubblegum pop song about social Darwinism, heavily stating that the other kids are useless and her life would be more productive than theirs. Personally, favorite line? “he (referring to Ricky)’ll never learn to read, he (Noel)’s never gonna breed, (Misha) going to jail guaranteed, and she (Jane)’s a freaky monster!”
“Noel’s Lament” is the next “Dance: 10; Looks: 3” or “Chip’s Lament”; not just because it’s the only song with an Explicit label, but because it’s catchy as fuck and it really speaks to a specific group of people. Who are those people? The gays. But not the happy gays, the sophisticated, romantic, nihilistic gays who say, “gender? I hardly know her.” The song takes a hard pivot into a French cabaret-style number. This score really goes all over the place in the most positive way. I was in the coming out process when I saw this show and this number and Kholby’s performance got to me hard. The song isn’t meant to be a real argument to live, it’s about Noel longing for the opportunity to live out his dreams of living a beautiful, tragic life like in an old film.
“Every Story’s Got a Lesson” is a short transitional more Disney or vaudeville-type song that Ocean sings between Noel and Misha’s numbers.
“This Song is Awesome” and “Talia” are both parts of Misha’s sequence. “This Song is Awesome” is an autotune rap, which even includes the lyric “autotune is awesome” and is the typical bragging about substances, money, and women, through the lens of a teenage boy from Ukraine, whereas “Talia” is about his internet girlfriend who he never got to say goodbye to, and the music is more traditional folk music, and then the two genres mash up at the end.
“Space Age Bachelor Man” is… I guess I’ll say prog-rock because they say that’s what is but truth be told I could use a million labels to try to process what the hell is happening in this number. It’s gorgeous and funny and spoofs Webber and sci-fi in a really fun way. Ricky basically uses his turn to talk about being the sexy savior of a cat galaxy… again, the music and story truly just takes another turn. The point of this number is to see that Ricky is a nice enough kid with a really vibrant imagination and a good moral compass, but mostly it’s a really nice light moment in a very heavy show that’s ultimately about teenage death. In fact, in “Meet Jane Doe,” directly after this number, Constance says, “I’m so happy right now I can never come down…”
Jane Doe will make you cry. She will.
“The Ballad of Jane Doe” is a cross between opera and New Orleans jazz. It also is a song that is about Jane Doe’s unfortunate circumstances. Unlike the other 5 kids, she doesn’t know what her life was like, so it’s like she never lived at all. Over and over again she just wants to know who she is, because her body was never identified (her head was missing and her parents never came). Her song makes clear that it is better to have lived and died young than to have died without any life to remember at all. The other kids sing her “The New Birthday Song” because they feel so bad for her.
“Jawbreaker” is part of Constance’s monologue going into her song- the last student before the choice is made. It honestly doesn’t seem like she wants to be chosen, and it seems like the group is leaning towards a decision anyway, but we hear more about her experiences in this monologue and her song, “Sugar Cloud,” which has more of a 60’s sound. In “Sugar Cloud” she says, “I wouldn’t change my life for a thing.” She’s made peace with her death.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that she’s why I started theorizing that these characters and their placement are representative of the 5 stages of grief.
Misha (and to a lesser extent, Ricky)= Bargaining
“It’s Not a Game/It’s Just a Ride” is the fun finale that ties it together. “It’s Just a Ride” is one big celebration of life, but the last words of the show are that same opener “I know this dream of life is never-ending, it goes around and round and round again,” only this time it resolves in minor, perhaps because (spoiler) Jane is about to go live and the rest of them are about to go die.
The Bonus Tracks:
“Be Safe, Be Good,” is a song about dying young despite being careful, as a tribute to Rachel Rockwell, the director of the Chicago and NYC productions who died at 48 years old.
“A World Inside” is a folk-country/pop type trunk song about appreciating life.
“Karnak’s Theme” is a group vocalise of one of the instrumental themes in the show.
and then the clean version of “Noel’s Lament” where they change the f-bombs to “messed.”
Final thoughts: I really can’t recommend this show or this album enough. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a celebration of life and a way to process death with some really lovely music, and the characters are idiosyncratic and complex. It should be your next niche cult hit. Also, I’m never getting on a roller coaster again, are you kidding?