- Ride the Cyclone by Jacob Richmond, music and lyrics by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, an Atomic Vaudeville production at the Arts Club Granville Island Stage as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Tickets: 604-687-6144.
I will admit I privately questioned whether the choice of Ride the Cyclone as a mainstage show was indicative of the PuSh Festival becoming more "Fringe-y."
Not a bit of it. Sure, this Victoria-based Atomic Vaudeville production ran at the Arts Club Revue in 2011 as a self-produced collective work, but the show was already on its way to Toronto then and is now a dizzying success with even bigger stages to conquer in its future.
Not having seen previous incarnations or even read the reviews, I wondered aloud to theatre friends whether a show about a choir performing songs in the hereafter was a variant of the successful Forever Plaid. Wrong again! The Cassian Catholic School Chamber Choir from Uranium, Sask., are not here to recycle doo-wop or a capella standards. In fact, they are singing for their individual lives and therefore are singing from their hearts - passionately.
Spoiler alert here: Knowing the plot arc won't alter your enjoyment factor too much, but part of the show's charm is the number of small theatrical surprises directors Britt Small and Jacob Richmond pack into 80 minutes (no intermission). I would not want to reduce the enjoyment factor for anyone, so be warned.
Our host for the evening is Karnack, Wonderville's automaton who tells the audience that the choir has ridden the fair's roller coaster, the Cyclone, to their deaths. Ironically, the insensate Karnack's message was just fairground advertising: "Your luck number is eight. Ride the Cyclone."
Karnack tells the five (or six!) members of the choir that one of them will live, a concept immediately embraced by over-achiever Ocean Rosenberg who bursts into a show-stopper of a number - Rielle Braid has amazing vocal range and power - on the theme of "choose me" that climaxes in a human pyramid as she literally climbs over the backs of her "friends."
Apparently "life is a play but death has an orchestra" or, in this case, a band - whose sound was often muddy on opening night - and at this point it's now clear that each cast member will get a turn in the spotlight to showcase their musical chops and their character's teenage angst.
Even though Karnack immediately displays an ability to change the rules - to Ocean's consternation he decrees that the choice of who lives will be by consensus - I thought the obvious plot structure would become repetitive.
Wrong again! That it does not is because each choir member's personal story and musical genre is wildly different.
Kholby Wardell is a knockout as Noel Gruber, the only gay boy in Uranium whose tedious mall job at Taco Bell is only relieved by his fantasy of being a post-war Parisienne hooker with a heart of black charcoal: "If I could have one dream, I'd be that f---ed-up girl."
Jameson Matthew Parker plays Misha Barchinsky, a new Canadian orphan and the angriest boy in town who has been drinking since Grade 7. He has an Internet girlfriend in the Ukraine, whom he sings to while a hilarious projection of her dancing in a cornfield plays on the upstage screen. It's fitting - and magical - when he enters her virtual world. It turns out that only rap soothes this savage.
By the time Elliot Loran turns nerdy Ricky Potts into a Rocky Horror glam-rock idol and the cat women of Zolar make an appearance, I was no longer thinking "Who's next?" but "What on earth could be next?"
Musically, it turns out, it's the best voice in the show. Sarah Jane Pelzer is Jane Doe, the headless body found in the wreckage and assumed to be one of the choir. Jane doesn't know - not having her own head - and hopes Saint Peter will tell her who she is. Doe appears in white makeup with a wrap around her neck and moves throughout the show like a marionette with a string or two missing. Her number has black-clad umbrella-holding grave-side mourners as chorus and feels like an Edward Gorey cartoon come to life. Fabulous stuff.
Last up is Kelly Hudon's Constance Blackwood, the nicest girl in town who, it transpires, deliberately decided to lose her virginity in the grungiest way possible. Her rock-anthem finale includes a recorder solo! Hudson's character is spot-on, but her voice doesn't quite have the power of the others. In fairness, there were some technical hiccups on opening night that appeared to affect this scene, so that criticism may be unfair.
If what I have written does not appeal, consider buying tickets for any teens in your family. This knockout musical is by young people for young people. But if you don't, it won't matter to the show's success. Whether or not Ride the Cyclone is Broadway-bound, it will be a staple of high school drama clubs for years to come.