In 2008, a new musical appeared on stage in Victoria, British Columbia. Ambitiously called the second work in the “Uranium Teen Scream Trilogy” (the first was a novel and one-act play and the third has not yet appeared 15 years later), Jacob Richmond’s “Ride the Cyclone” is the tale of six high school students from the tiny town of Uranium City, Saskatchewan, just 30 miles south of the Northwest Territories, who are killed in a freak, roller coaster accident.
…a marvel…a short, pithy, and hilarious show that deserved to be rediscovered and seen on the NextStop stage.
Mainstream audiences weren’t having it. It was just too dark and too strange to become a smash. It did find a following on a Canadian tour a few years later and when it landed off-Broadway in 2016. The New York Times called it “weird and just plain delightful.” “Ride the Cyclone” would continue to pop up in regional theatres, but seemed destined to a fate of obscurity. Then came TikTok.
Last year, a 49-second clip from the New York production was posted on TikTok. Emily Rohm was performing her big number while being lifted into the air and spun around. It went viral on the platform. The winking nihilism of the show and the frenetic pacing that turned off earlier audiences hit a nerve with a generation born after 9/11 and accustomed to short-form media at lightning speed.
Like 2015’s “Be More Chill,” Gen-Z embraced “Ride the Cyclone,” sharing and remixing videos, using its songs, and churning out what creator Richmond has called “Tolstoy-level” fan fiction. When the musical opened at Arena Stage in January, fans traveled from as far as New York to experience it, many in full cosplay.
“Ride the Cyclone” is now at NextStop Theatre Company, an intimate space that works well for the “minimum plot/maximum emotion” vibe of the show—and it’s a marvel. We are greeted by The Amazing Karnak (Bobby Libby), a Zoltar-style fortune-telling machine removed from the carnival fairways of the realm of the living due to its troubling ability to predict time, place, and cause of death with total accuracy. Now serving as a gatekeeper on the Astral Plane, Karnak knows its own “death” is imminent (due to the long-term mastication of a determined, but friendly, rat). Karnak will let one of the six recently dead students return to life. They will decide who gets the prize after they all tell their stories. (“Ride the Cyclone” is a bit like “Cats” in this respect, but absolutely in no other way.)
Go-getter Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg grabs center stage to make a case for herself in a delightfully unaware salute to her own ego. Ocean is like Tracy Flick in “Election,” fighting for her life. Nadja Tomaszewski even looks a bit like a younger Reese Witherspoon and does a fine job making this Type-A, student government strongwoman relatable, even as we roll our eyes.
The first big showstopper is “Noel’s Lament,” sung by Jack Wimsatt as the capital-R romantic, Noel Gruber, the only openly gay person in town. Noel channels Lord Byron as he dreams of, in Ocean’s words, being “an old-timey sex worker” in a French New Wave fantasia. Another is “Space Age Bachelor Man” from Cam Powell as Ricky Potts. Unable to speak since a traumatic incident as a child (shades of “Tommy”), Ricky seizes the chance to tell his friends about the secret world in his mind—and what a world it is. Aspiring hip-hop star Mischa (Carter Crosby) leads the cast in a song called “This Song is Awesome”—and it is.
As the enigmatic Jane Doe (none of the others remember her and she does not remember herself), Rachel Cahoon and Sydney “Sunday” Coleman, who plays the shy and nervous Constance, both confront the challenge of delivering quieter, moodier songs and inhabiting characters who drive the show’s more serious moments. Like all the other members of director Megan Bunn’s exceptional cast, they deliver.
Jack Golden’s simple set—with the outlines of a rickety structure suggesting the fatal rollercoaster and the name “CYCLONE” in lights above it—aptly indicates the ethereal, not-alive/not-dead plane of the action. Hailey LaRose’s lighting effectively sets the mood of each of the teens’ vignettes.
“Ride the Cyclone” is a short, pithy, and hilarious show that deserved to be rediscovered and deserves to be seen on the NextStop stage.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
“Ride the Cyclone” runs through November 26, 2023, at NextStop Theatre Company, 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, VA 21070. For more information and tickets, click here.