REVIEW: Ride the Cyclone - World Premiere Cast Recording

Recording CoverWhen I saw Ride the Cyclone off-Broadway in 2016, I came away mostly impressed with the stylish visuals achieved through an excellent collaboration among designers and director. The musical spotlighted the teenage victims of a fatal rollercoaster accident, with a touch of mystery added by the presence of a Jane Doe victim found decapitated and unidentifiable. The show at its best was a neo-vaudevillian concept revue about the meaning of mortality, but at times it felt weighed down by the inertia built into the format where you can count the number of bodies on stage and calculate how many songs are likely left in the evening.

Five years later, revisiting the show as a purely aural experience through its World Premiere Cast Recording, the strengths of the score are more palpable, but they don't fully outshine its weaknesses either.

The album, released digitally without liner notes, seems to downplay the plot of the show. (At least at one stage, the dead were competing for the privilege of being revived. If that element remains in the show today, there's no real trace of it on the album.) There is some narration in the voice of Karnak, a fortune-telling carnival machine, played here by co-writer Jacob Richmond. But these tracks are better at setting the tone of morbid black humor than clarifying story points.

This may be a feature, not a bug: the show is more interested in metaphor than plot. You see, life is a ride, and for some of us, that ride may be cut short. These teenagers come from Uranium City, a highway town in Saskatchewan dominated by nuclear industry, giving us a pun-as-foreshadowing about half-lives being their whole lives.

But as much as the show dabbles in metaphor, it also is intereted in metaphysics. What happens when we die? Does it matter how we lived? Can our interior lives be fulfilling even if what's visible to the rest of the world seems less so?

Dead characters by definition can't grow or change, so the songs are burdened with inertia -- a lot of "I Am" songs in a row starts to feel more like a cabaret or senior showcase than a dramatic piece. Capturing the concept of a concept musical on record is a challenge, and the producers of this album (primarily cowriter Brooke Maxwell, credited above a bevy of co- and Executive producers) did not quite meet that challenge.

And yet, the album has a lot to recommend it. The score is a patchwork of genres, from the '70s popera reminiscent of Paul Williams that infuses "The Uranium Suite" to Miley Cyrus-style "What The World Needs" and on, dabbling in chanson, Euro-hip-hop, folk, EDM, prog rock, art song and so forth. Maxwell and Richmond ably skip from genre to genre, blending various pastiches into a coherent score. The songs, for the most part, are a lot of fun! (Although they may work better on shuffle so the first character you spend time with isn't the horrible mean girl played by Tiffany Tatreau.) And the cast -- all of whom have done the show on stage in at least one of its incarnations -- are uniformly excellent.

To my ears, though, the real star of this album is the orchestration by Maxwell (who also served as music director and conductor and sings two trunk songs included as bonus tracks). Maxwell manages to extract so many different sounds from twelve musicians, each new genre sounding as full and authentic as necessary.

There was a moment when this show felt like it was about to be the next big thing, with a rave in the New York Times and a powerful producer raising money for its next step. This album makes it clear why members of the theatrical establishment wanted to invest in the work -- and also why they made the wise decision to continue to develop the piece with regional productions after off-Broadway. Whether this album closes the book on Ride the Cyclone or begins its next chapter, I hope we hear more from Maxwell and Richmond before too long.


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