Arena Stage’s RIDE THE CYCLONE Is a Bumpy yet Exhilarating Journey

Washington D.C.

The company of Ride the Cyclone | Photo: Margot Schulman

Nathan Pugh
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January 26, 2023 11:13 AM

Musicals take a long time to develop; Hamilton took seven years to write, and Hadestown took 13 years to go from community theater project to Broadway hit. Ride the Cyclone, a one-act musical with book, music, and lyrics by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, has had a whopping 15 years of development—so far. It’s a quirky, original musical following six Canadian teenagers who are victims of a freak roller coaster accident. In the afterlife, the teens meet Karnak, a mysterious carnival robot who offers only one of them the chance to live again. A fierce competition to claim that spot ensues.

Over its 15 years, Ride the Cyclone has had various productions across North America, from a 2008 Atomic Vaudeville world premiere to a 2016 off-Broadway production. The musical’s probably more popular now than it’s ever been: a 2021 cast recording has millions of streams on Spotify and has spawned an ardent following of TikTok stans.

Ride the Cyclone’s wild journey now takes it to Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, in a co-production with Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center (where it previously played in 2022). This production is probably the most technically elaborate version of Ride the Cyclone ever staged, making it a must-see for musical theatre fans and D.C. theatergoers. Yet moments of ecstatic bliss in this production also belie the story’s pitfalls. Like a real rollercoaster, Ride the Cyclone is full of high highs and low lows.

Ride the Cyclone’s structure is cut from the same cloth as A Chorus Line—one by one, characters get up and perform songs revealing their unique worldview. The competitors in this musical include straight-A student Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Shinah Hey); gay fantasist Noel Gruber (Nick Martinez); braggadocious Ukrainian immigrant Mischa Bachinski (Eli Mayer); mute comic book lover Ricky Potts (Matthew Boyd Snyder); and perceptive introvert Constance Blackwood (Gabrielle Dominique). The final competitor introduced by Karnak (Marc Geller) is Jane Doe (at my performance played by Ashlyn Maddox), a teen who was decapitated in the roller coaster accident and can’t remember her past life.

Ashlyn Maddox and Eli Mayer in Ride the Cyclone | Photo: Margot Schulman

Besides Jane Doe, the characters of Ride the Cyclone at first feel overly familiar; they’re all 2000s-era archetypes. What distinguishes Ride the Cyclone—and what launches the musical into the stratosphere in terms of originality—is the songwriting. Maxwell and Richmond have crafted a mixtape-like selection of tunes, each one a loving pastiche of genres like European cabaret to autotune rap. The songs are distinct, catchy, and colorful; it’s a veritable jewel box of musical theatre gems.

The ensemble does a wonderful job of bringing these songs to life. Maddox is hauntingly restless in “The Ballad of Jane Doe,” and Mayer brings the swagger and dancing chops necessary to pull off Mischa’s intense solos, but it’s Nick Martinez in “Noel’s Lament” that’s the real show-stopper. Martinez exquisitely conjures the melodrama many gay teens live for. His sincere and delirious performance brings the house down.

Sarah Rasmussen (also the artistic director of McCarter Theatre Center as of 2020) directs the show with a keen awareness of its heart: a celebration of small pleasures during unrealized dreams. Her staging of “Sugar Cloud” (a clever inversion of Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s “Wicked Little Town”) somehow feels both bubble-gum sweet and existentially profound.

Unfortunately, Rasmussen’s excellent work can’t make up for Ride the Cyclone’s pacing issues. Much of the musical’s charm is its eclecticism, but it’s the same feature making the show disjointed. Richmond and Maxwell go for wild tonal swings that at best become camp and at worst are cringey. I could feel the Arena Stage audience alternately thrilled and frustrated.

Those strong reactions are refreshing, though. Ride the Cyclone is weirder and more dynamic than the genteel musical revivals Arena Stage typically produces, and the show feels like a major step forward for the theater company.

The cast of Ride the Cyclone | Photo: Margot Schulman

If there’s one truly surprising part of this production, it’s the changes made to the character Ricky Potts. In previous productions of Ride the Cyclone, Potts was a disabled character using mobility aids. In this D.C. production, he’s a character rendered mute by a traumatic experience. Richmond explains on an Arena Stage blog that, “This revision makes sure that an able-bodied performer is not using mobility aids as a theatrical device in future productions.” (The social media posts attached to #SaveRickyPotts tell a different story: yannick-robin eike alleges that he was fired from playing Ricky Potts in the McCarter production “after one medical emergency.”)

Maybe the best way to view Ride the Cyclone is as an unfinished story. With the musical available for both professional and non-professional licensing; the fanbase expanding every day; and no pressure to freeze for Broadway, Ride the Cyclone might keep changing and developing for years to come. At 15 years old, the musical itself is nearly as old as its teen characters. Maybe Ride the Cyclone still has some considerable growing up to do, but like its teen characters, the show has already had a magnificent life.

Ride the Cyclone is now playing at Arena Stage through February 19. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Nathan Pugh

Nathan Pugh is a writer, culture critic, and essayist based in the Washington, D.C. area. Nathan graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in Theater and English (concentration in race/ethnicity), where he also served as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Wesleyan Argus. Pugh’s work strives to explore how intersectional identities are staged, with his current long-form writing focusing on Black gay playwrights from Virginia.