I have had a tumultuous relationship with musical theatre throughout my life. As a child it was always an event when a classic musical like The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady hit the television airwaves, and I loved watching those with my grandmother who was a devotee of those old stage shows. (Gigi was her favourite.) When I was in elementary school I sang in the choir for a staging of The Wizard of Oz, and when I was in junior high I had a small role in a musical called The Trail of ’98. The only professionally staged musical I can remember seeing as a kid was Zorba, the 1983 revival of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 1968 stage musical adaptation of the 1964 movie Zorba the Greek, which was an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1946 novel. Then I went a long time without seeing any theatre until I reached adulthood and developed my own interest in “legitimate” theatre. To me, musicals seemed too splashy and gaudy, and didn’t really harness the theatre’s true capability at eliciting emotional responses from an audience through immediacy and intimacy.
Obviously, that’s a crock of bullshit. You can’t treat every musical like it’s Cats. I’ve learned a lot about theatre in the past twenty years. When I was taking classes at Second City I sang a very filthy blues song with Dan Stolfi, and we were in the same class as Irene Carl Sankoff who had way too much knowledge about every stage musical ever. You may recognize her name; along with her husband David Hein she co-created a little show called My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, and followed it up with a humble little offering called Come From Away. I loved both of those shows, and I’ve grown to appreciate such varied stage shows as The Drowzy Chaperone, The Book of Mormon, The Last Ship and The Phantom of the Opera. However, the musical that had the most effect on me ever is one you probably never heard of, and I think it needs much more attention.
In February 2012 I was in Vancouver for work, and I met up with my old Second City classmate Oscar. He had an extra ticket to a musical playing the next evening at the Red Gate Revue Stage on Granville Island, and offered it to me. I was in no way prepared for the range of emotions triggered by this show entitled Ride the Cyclone.
The show is set in a fairground and is narrated by Karnak, a coin operated fortune-telling machine (much like Zoltan in Big). Karnak is actually able to see into the future, but because he’s been set to family-fun mode, he can’t deliver bad news. When the kids from St. Cassian High School chamber choir in Uranium City, Saskatchewan visit the fair, Karnak foresees how they’re all going to die on the fair’s big roller coaster called The Cyclone. After the children die, Karnak interacts with their spirits, informing them how he can bring only one of them back to life, but they must choose between themselves who that will be. The show centres around each member of the choir describing what their hopes and dreams were.
I know. It sounds soul-crushing, but each kid has their own unique personality and gives the show a shot of levity. The genre of music switches from kid to kid; Ocean O’Connell favours Britney-esque millennial pop; Sci-fi nerd Ricky Potts performs a synth-heavy prog rock number; Mischa Bachinski delivers boast-rap before slipping into traditional Balkan folk upon remembering his true love. This all loads the show full of heart, and as dark as it can get, Ride the Cyclone can also be strangely uplifting. And that balance between light and dark was exactly what co-creators Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell were shooting for.
“I think the sadness is the easiest thing to access in the musical,” Richmond says. “A story about six young people dying in a random accident just as their lives were about to start… this musical could be a total wrist slitter. And why would we make up such a sad story when you can read about such events in a newspaper everyday. No, the goal was to make the audience feel happy and lighter dealing with a subject which is taboo in our culture: Death. Western culture is terrible with how we handle and process this massive life event, and the griever is pretty much left to fend for themselves. We wanted to throw a party around a topic that scares the shit out of everyone, and gives that light feeling of getting off a scary ride.”
Richmond’s desire to address a topic as heavy as loss came from a very real place.
“About a couple decades ago my aunt (Canadian actress Susan Wright), my Grandfather Jack and Grandmother Ruth died in a house fire,” he recalls. “And a few years before I started Cyclone my sister Rachel was murdered. She broke up a fight outside a nightclub of people she had never met before, the man she had saved from a beating come back to the scene and shot her…. So Cyclone was actually me trying to find a way to tell a story of impossible loss and grief, and make it a comedy, for me and others like me who really needed something like that to exist.”
Richmond had co-founded Atomic Vaudeville in Victoria, British Columbia back in 2004. It’s a performance company aimed at encouraging and supporting the professional development of new and emerging local actors, writers, musicians, artists and performers. The same year Atomic Vaudeville was founded, a teacher and musician named Brooke Maxwell attended his first Fringe Festival, and was inspired to get involved in theatre. Atomic Vaudeville soon proved to be a breeding ground for Richmond’s storytelling and Maxwell’s musical expertise. When Richmond approached Maxwell with the idea for a musical about loss, Maxwell was on board.
“I was a fan of Jacob’s writing,” he says. “The comedy, the irreverence, the heart, the surprise. It was very inspiring writing tunes under his direction. I was raised with a love for all kinds of music, and was later fortuntate enough to study jazz and composition in a way that allowed me to appreciate the similarities and differences different styles. Working as a musician deepened that. I was also a huge comedy fan, and the rich legacy of Canadian comedy has been so inspiring. Without Kids in the Hall and the Beatles…?”
The result is a heartfelt and hilarious treatise on life and loss, careening through half a dozen musical genres winding their way through the emotional spectrum. It’s a show that properly tests the capabilities of theatre as a medium, whether through audio-visual trickery or through its clever choreography. Since Ride the Cyclone first hit the stage at Metro Studio in Victoria in 2009, it won the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best Touring Production, the Toronto Theatre Critics Awards for Best Musical and Best Direction in a Musical, and the Victoria M Awards for Best Direction, Best Production and Best Musical. Ride The Cyclone’s run at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta in 2018-19 nabbed five Suzi Bass Awards, including Outstanding Production and Outstanding Acting Ensemble. Earlier this year the cast recording was released onto several music streaming sites.
“We had initially planned to do the recording pre-pandemic,” says Maxwell. “It was time. We’d had such a great cast in the Atlanta run. I had such a deep pool of talented friends here in Victoria as a well as an engineer that I’d been wanting to work with for a long time, Joby Baker. Our producers were so supportive, and wanted to see it come together as well. The pandemic obviously slowed things down and forced us to recalibrate, but it also made the scheduling of the artists all over the continent less of an issue, as the industry was basically shut down and everyone was suddenly available. It was great for everyone to have something to focus all of our energies on, and nice to be able to offer something positive out into the world.”
Still, with all of its accolades, it feels like Ride the Cyclone is still hungry for attention. A livestream in which I take part on Friday nights called Fun Fact Fridays recently had an episode dedicated to musical theatre, and I showcased “The Ballad of Jane Doe” from Ride the Cyclone. The rest of the panel had never heard of the show, and while that is sad, I’m happy to spread awareness.
“It feels like it’s been everywhere but somehow no one has ever heard of it,” Richmond admits. “My own cousin who works in musical theatre wrote me a couple months ago and asked ‘You wrote a musical??? I just found it on Spotify. Is that you or another Jacob Richmond?’”
With my fingers crossed, I’m hoping the COVID-19 pandemic continues to recede, and that musical theatre is able to return. When it does, I would love it if an adventurous producer revived Ride the Cyclone so it could find the audience it so richly deserves. While death and loss are topics that have the potential to make audiences squeamish, those topics are the Great Unifier. If a show like Ride the Cyclone can find a way to deal with it in such a playful yet profound way, the resulting catharsis is something that can do us all a lot of good.
Ride the Cyclone is coming to the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, New Jersey from April 30 to May 29, 2022. Get your tickets at https://www.mccarter.org/cyclone if you want to see what I typed about for yourself.