Five dead teens stand before us, each given this last chance to impress the judges and save themselves from permanent elimination. They all must sing and dance for their lives, but only one will be crowned the winner, and awarded the ultimate prize: a miraculous return from the afterlife.
Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell’s supernatural musical Ride the Cyclone (★★★★☆), pitting its cast of choir kids against each other in a post-mortem performance pageant, breezily follows the format of a Drag Race or American Idol-style reality TV competition. But it most calls to mind its theatrical godparent Cats, the ultimate pageant of unsatisfied souls singing for their afterlife.
Richmond and Maxwell’s score operates on a more intimate scale of bouncy pop/rock, and one tongue-in-cheek tango, with songs that sound true to these teenagers. Yet, as much as any Jellicle Cat, the St. Cassian High chamber choir kids want to be seen and understood, and, if this is their last shot, maybe celebrated, for who they truly are — or were.
Our cast of characters expired in a freak rollercoaster accident at the fair, the tragic event artfully indicated by a curve of broken track poised high above the stage in director Sarah Rasmussen’s production at Arena.
The wondrous set by Scott Davis, lit with precision by Jiyoun Chang, compiles bits of the carnival’s past and present into the otherworldly limbo where Ocean (Shinah Hey), Noel (Nick Martinez), Mischa (Eli Mayer), Ricky (Matthew Boyd Snyder), and Constance (Gabrielle Dominique) await their fate.
Conducting them through their contest of musical confessionals is The Amazing Karnak, a life-like mechanical fortune teller brilliantly embodied by Marc Geller. Abetted by convincing makeup and sound design, Geller, who nails Karnak’s mechanized movement, creates a dynamic, wickedly sarcastic ringmaster within the confines of a glass-topped, wooden box. Though, depending on where they’re seated, some in the audience may find their view of Karnak is actually blocked by the box.
Everyone in the house should have no trouble gaining a gasp-worthy sight of the show’s sideshow magic — impressive optical illusions that include a headless schoolgirl and a musical number sung seemingly in mid-air. The morbid flourishes, playful spirit, and evocative hair and makeup design by J. Jared Janas, extend to the mystery sixth contestant in this ghoulish game, Jane Doe, portrayed by Ashlyn Maddox. (Katie Mariko Murray assumes the role Feb. 1 through closing, Feb. 19.)
Whereas the other kids might struggle to fully express their identities, Jane Doe really doesn’t know who she was before the incident. Maddox animates Jane’s ghostly presence with the inanimate stiffness of a life-size doll, and especially connects in Jane’s poignant, minor-key solo, “The Ballad of Jane Doe.” She’s creepy, she’s kooky, and still generates giggles every time she slides up like the Terminator next to one of her hapless schoolmates.
Maddox is reprising her role from Rasmussen’s 2022 production of Cyclone at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, and the depth of that experience shows. The director has brought most of the McCarter production creative team and much of the cast to this re-staging at Arena, and, again, the depth of experience shows in some performances.
Mayer charms with his take on hip-hop-posturing Ukrainian immigrant Mischa, and Martinez turns “Noel’s Lament,” poet Noel’s spicy drag solo about longing to die like a French femme fatale, into the show’s standout, soul-baring number.
The newbie cast members, with the exception of Geller, appear more tentative in their approach. That might be the script, which gives Ocean and Constance fewer notes to play beyond comic relief. Snyder, an alum of the McCarter cast, also only does so much with Ricky’s shrug of a fanboy screed, “Space Age Bachelor Man.”
As gorgeous as Rasmussen’s production can be, Richmond and Maxwell’s songs are hit-or-miss — though it’s safe to say that the judges of this competition choose the right song in the end.
Ride the Cyclone runs through Feb. 19 in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $66 to $105. Call 202-488-3300, or visit www.arenastage.org.
These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and MetroWeekly.com remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!