May 11, 2022

McCarter Theatre Presents Offbeat, Uplifting Musical “Ride the Cyclone”; Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen Helms Colorful, Energetic Production

“RIDE THE CYCLONE”: Performances are underway for “Ride the Cyclone.” Produced by McCarter Theatre and Arena Stage, and directed by McCarter’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen, the musical runs through May 29 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Above, from left, are Constance (Princess Sasha Victomé), Noel (Nick Martinez), Ocean (Katerina McCrimmon), Jane Doe (Ashlyn Maddox), Ricky (yannick-robin eike), and Mischa (Eli Mayer). (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

In the musical Ride the Cyclone, six teenagers are killed in an accident while riding the titular amusement park ride. In an otherworldly warehouse they meet The Amazing Karnak, a mechanical fortune teller that is about to be destroyed by a bass-playing rat who is chewing on his power cord.  The fortune teller offers to send one of the teenagers back from the dead, instigating a literal fight for their lives.

It must have been entertaining to listen to early pitches for the show, whose book, music, and lyrics are by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond. But within the eccentric, morbid plot are engaging, uplifting character arcs, conveyed by songs that are by turns eerie and exuberant. Ride the Cyclone is both offbeat and upbeat.

Ride the Cyclone is being presented at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre (in a co-production by McCarter and Arena Stage). In a program note, Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen — who directs the production — recalls a quote from Our Town: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it … every minute?”

Both Our Town and Ride the Cyclone acknowledge the fragility of life; lyrics in the song “Jawbreaker/Sugarcloud” echo the line quoted by Rasmussen. Karnak fulfills a role similar to that of Our Town’s Stage Manager: an emcee to guide the characters.

Any similarity between the two shows generally ends there. In Wilder’s play, the dead characters are confined to chairs. In the musical, the characters sing, dance, and even spin in midair. Our Town usually is performed with no scenery and few props. Ride the Cyclone rejects this aesthetic, reveling in lavish production elements.

With bright, colorful lighting (designed by Jiyoun Chang); multimedia screens (which display the creations of projections designer Katherine Freer); and a variety of props that includes Karnak’s booth, the stage looks and sounds like a penny arcade. Despite the (deceptively) staid uniforms in which we first see the kids, the costumes by Trevor Bowen are colorful, showy, and often are changed in mid-song.

The musical debuted in Victoria, British Columbia, in 2008. An American premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and a 2016 off-Broadway run, followed. Rasmussen directed a 2019 production at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, where she was artistic director prior to McCarter.

In a 2020 interview for Princeton Magazine (a sister publication of Town Topics), Rasmussen tells this writer, “I love collaborating with music directors, composers, and singers. Musicals add that other dimension where we’re firing on all the cylinders of what a live performance experience can offer.” Here, that enthusiasm — and unity of vision between creative team and cast — is palpable.

The program specifies that Ride the Cyclone is set in the “distant future” and 2009. The bulk of the action takes place in a “dilapidated warehouse in Uranium City, Saskatchewan.” Scenic Designer Scott Davis furnishes the set with a suitably bizarre assortment of items, including carousel horses and toy ducks. A roller coaster track looms above the stage.

Ride the Cyclone opens with a solo: the haunting, chromatic “Dream of Life.” The number is performed by Jane Doe (played by Ashlyn Maddox, who brings an ethereal soprano and an introspective portrayal). After Jane sings, a curtain abruptly closes; the character’s song — and life — has ended.

Karnak reveals that, although he was designed to predict the exact nature of someone’s death, this ability was silenced when he was set on “family fun mode.“ Although the character spends the show in his booth, Jeffrey Binder’s performance is a tour de force, combining deadpan, authoritativeness, and charm.

Karnak introduces five teenagers who were members of the Saint Cassian High School chamber choir: the perky, narcissistic Ocean (Katerina McCrimmon); Noel (Nick Martinez), whose flamboyance belies his mundane job at Taco Bell; Ricky (yannick-robin eike), whose vivid imagination allows him refuge from the disease that renders him unable to speak; the swaggering, passionate Mischa (Eli Mayer); and Constance (Princes Sasha Victomé), who is kind but resents being interminably overlooked.

Rasmussen gets uniformly strong performances out of the talented cast. McCrimmon and Victomé deserve to be singled out because their characters undergo the most significant changes in attitude, and both actors make those moments convincing.

Ocean asks if they are there to play a game, accidentally setting Karnak on “game mode.” Karnak announces that the winner will live again, and that “the one who wants to win it the most shall redeem the loser — in order to complete the whole.” 

He also announces a mystery contestant: Jane Doe, who has been left decapitated by the accident, and who has no memory of her identity or her life prior to the accident.

Each character takes a turn trying to prove that they deserve the prize, by singing a song. Reviews of previous productions have noted that this plot device recalls Cats. Another apt comparison might be A Chorus Line; indeed, a sequence in which the characters covers their faces with a photo of Ocean (during her bouncy, pop-infused “What the World Needs”) seems to be a direct spoof of a scene in which aspiring actors cover their faces with their own headshots.

Before each character sings, they turn the handle on the side of Karnak’s booth (sound designer Andre Pluess accompanies each turn with noises that suggest a video game or quiz show). The fortune teller reveals their catchphrase, zodiac sign, and history. As he talks, the contestants’ homes appear on a screen, and details of their lives are reenacted with the help of the other characters. As each contestant’s story is told, their face is projected on miniature screens at the top of the stage.

“Noel’s Lament” is an Edith Piaf parody (the keyboards create an accordion sound). Mischa first sings “This Song is Awesome,” a hip-hop pastiche that conveys his swagger; and “Talia,” a ballad that shows his dreamier, passionate side (via projection we see video of Talia, smiling at us as she stands in a countryside; choreographer Jim Lichtscheidl gives the number a particularly exuberant dance). The rock-infused “Space Age Bachelor Man” allows Ricky to indulge his daydreams about a planet of cat-women (the ensemble sings a backup chorus of “meow”).

The largely uptempo, pastiche-laced musical language notably changes in the lyrical “The Ballad of Jane Doe,” a seamlessly phrased, slow waltz that recalls “Dream of Life.” The pop idiom returns in Constance’s gently syncopated “Jawbreaker/Sugarcloud;” and in the ensemble’s bouncy “It’s Just a Ride,” which artfully undercuts the morbidity of the characters’ situation.

The cast is accompanied by a five-piece band, smoothly conducted by Mark Christine (who also plays keyboard 1): Ed Levy (guitar), Ryan Knudsen (drums), Shannon van der Reck (bass), and Nick Wilders (keyboard 2).

Ride the Cyclone is an apt production to mount in the wake of the pandemic. Like many successful musicals, it depicts resolute cheerfulness in the face of grim circumstances. Also, it is exhilarating — even cathartic — to see this company of actors, in full costume, performing together on a lavishly decorated stage in front of a live audience.

In the Princeton Magazine interview Rasmussen says, “I’m especially drawn to stories that ask hard questions, but do so with an invitation to joy.” With this colorful, vibrant production of Ride the Cyclone, Rasmussen guides the cast and creative team to fulfill the mission to make live theater into “an invitation to joy.”

A co-production of McCarter Theatre and Arena Stage, Ride the Cyclone will play at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through May 29. The show runs 90 minutes without an intermission. It contains strobe lights and adult (PG13) content. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit