‘Ride the Cyclone’ is a carnival of a cult musical at Arena Stage

The great cult musicals are often powered by a kind of cheery weirdness. Take Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell’s fantasy-infused Ride the Cyclone, now playing at Arena Stage and presented in partnership with the McCarter Theatre under director Sarah Rasmussen. It comes with an eye-catching pitch: six Canadian teenagers from a Catholic school show choir are killed while riding the titular rollercoaster and must sing for their second chance at life. At its best, the premise sets up a dazzling pastiche of styles, tongue-in-cheek humor, and occasional fits of heart.

Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber), Shinah Hey (Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg), Matthew Boyd Snyder (Ricky Potts), and Gabrielle Dominique (Constance Blackwood) in ‘Ride the Cyclone.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

The competition at the core of Ride the Cyclone takes place in a broken-down netherworld presided over by The Amazing Karnak (Marc Geller), an animatronic fortune teller straight out of an old-school carnival. Karnak specializes in predicting the time and place of a person’s death and has even clocked his own: in just over an hour’s time thanks to Virgil, a rat with a taste for electrical cords. That sets the clock for a song-and-dance showdown featuring five newly dead show choir geeks from the small Saskatchewan town of Uranium City.

Gabrielle Dominique (Constance Blackwood), Matthew Boyd Snyder (Ricky Potts), Shinah Hey (Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg), Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber), Eli Mayer (Mischa Bachinski), and Marc Geller (The Amazing Karnak) in ‘Ride the Cyclone.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

There’s Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Shinah Hey), the peppy, self-absorbed go-getter; Constance Blackwood (Gabrielle Dominique), Ocean’s sweet but insecure sidekick; Noel Gruber (Nick Martinez), a gay wannabe-existentialist straining against the restraints of his conservative small town; Mischa Bachinski (Eli Mayer), the gruff but secretly sensitive Ukrainian bad boy; and Ricky Potts (Matthew Boyd Snyder), the weirdo who, up until this point, had never even said a word to his colleagues.

The quintet is joined by the creepy, doll-like Jane Doe (Ashlyn Maddox through January 29, Katie Mariko Murray thereafter), whose unidentified headless body was discovered at the scene. The teens must outdo each other for the right to return to the world of the living, but there’s a catch: the winner must be chosen by unanimous vote.

Ride the Cyclone’s show choir cast and supernatural locale suit a catchy score that dips into everything from rap to glam rock. The numbers, originally choreographed by Jim Lichtscheidl with additions by associate director Tiger Brown, flesh out arrangements that cycle from pop ensembles to soaring solos. The uniformly strong cast, ably guided by Rasmussen and music director Nick Wilders, shines equally in cheeky openers like “Uranium” and optimistic closers like “It’s Just a Ride,” each member proving equally adept in the spotlight or singing backup.

Many of the songs double as exposition for the characters and claims for the life they want to return to. Hey earns laughs aplenty as Ocean, whose ode to her own do-gooder selflessness in “What the World Needs” fails to mask her ambition, while Mischa’s rap number “This Is Awesome,” delivered with bravado by Mayer, transitions into an aching ballad for his beloved girlfriend.

Ashlyn Maddox (Jane Doe) in ‘Ride the Cyclone.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

In addition to belting in a signature style, each character dwells on their teenage anxiety and yearnings in a monologue that often provides genuine pathos but sometimes disrupts the otherwise smooth musical machinery. Martinez’s saucy rendition of “That F#@&ed Up Girl” jars with his genuinely touching confessions of insecurity and adolescent malaise, while sweet Constance, nicely played by Dominique, has her big secret undercut by an awkward revelation earlier in the story.

On the whole, Ride the Cyclone is finely produced, though certain of its strengths come hand in hand with limitations in the material. Geller is winning and uncanny as the snarky, deadpan, animatronic Karnak, yet the fortune teller’s constant changing of the rules and inexplicable powers sometimes undercut the premise of his game. “The Ballad of Jane Doe,” a certified showstopper, is superbly sung by Maddox and delivered with the help of some stage magic, yet the very nature of Jane Doe’s “backstory” makes the musical’s conclusion a bit of a headscratcher (no pun intended).

Nick Martinez (Noel Gruber) and the cast of ‘Ride the Cyclone.’ Photo by Margot Schulman.

The design is broadly excellent: Scott Davis’s set frames the stage with carnival standards without drawing undue attention, Trevor Bowen’s costumes are functional when necessary but stylish when the need arises, and the projections by Katherine Freer, with help from associate Zavier Taylor, expand the world of the play nicely. It’s all honed thanks to a previous run under Rasmussen at the McCarter, but even that polish sometimes glosses over the glorious messiness that gives cult musicals their real luster.

Ultimately, Ride the Cyclone delivers on its promise: campy, tongue-in-cheek fun that cuts just a little even as it goes over the top. No other subgenre reliably delivers numbers like Ricky’s bizarre “Space Age Bachelor Man,” performed with gusto by Snyder and styled to fit certain feline fantasies (you’ll understand when you see it). For all the occasional creaks in its conceit, Ride the Cyclone at Arena Stage is still a trip.

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Ride the Cyclone plays through February 19, 2023, in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($66–$125) may be purchased online, by phone at 202-488-3300 (Tuesday–Sunday, 12:00-8:00 p.m.), or in person at the Sales Office at 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC (on performance days, starting 90 minutes prior to curtain). Arena Stage offers savings programs including “pay your age” tickets for those aged 30 and under, student discounts, and “Southwest Nights” for those living and working in the District’s Southwest neighborhood. To learn more, visit arenastage.org/savings-programs.

The program for Ride the Cyclone is online here.

COVID Safety: Arena Stage requires that patrons wear facial masks while in its theaters. Arena additionally recommends, but no longer requires, that patrons wear masks in the Mead Center’s large open spaces, such as the Lower Lobby, Grand Lobby, Molly Smith Study, and café area. For up-to-date information, visit arenastage.org/safety.