Dark Whimsy Spins Loopy Musical Theater

Ride the Cyclone
Gus Halper, Lillian Castillo, Emily Rohn, Kholby Wardell, Alex Wyse and Tiffany Tatreau in Ride the Cyclone. Photo: Joan Marcus.

I’ve never had a strong attachment to whimsy. Until now, I never realized there could be such a thing as dark whimsy. But here, dark as whimsy as can be, is Ride the Cyclone. The curiously groundbreaking musical is at Off-Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theater as part of the MCC Theater’s 30th season, imported from Atomic Vaudeville in Victoria, British Columbia by way of Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Why darkly whimsical? Five members of an award-winning singing group, having finished competing at a carnival, decide to celebrate by obeying the title that Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, jointly credited with book, music and lyrics, give to their 90-minute piece. The thrill-ride car in which these 17-year-olds secure themselves derails and all are killed. Well, not exactly: They discover themselves in, according to the program, “a dilapidated warehouse” that Scott Davis has designed in gloomy shades of grey. where a sign declaring “Cyclone” hangs and occasionally sputters.

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Presiding over this somber setting is The Amazing Karnak (Karl Hamilton), a mechanical figure in a glass box who informs the newly-dead, tuneful teens that he can restore one of them back to life. He’ll do so after each states their case for resurrection. Their pleas will be followed by — this is crucial — a unanimous vote. As newspaper headlines are projected, The Amazing Karnak also introduces us to a sixth participant in this contest — that is, six youngsters perished in the crash. (The Amazing Karnak is not to be confused with Carnac the Magnificent, Johnny Carson’s recurring prognosticator years ago on The Tonight Show.)

So, each of the six dead kids go into their song-and-dance, numbers intended to let the audience know who these contestants are in their innermost selves. (Choreography is by the director, Rachel Rockwell, who hardly minimizes the dark whimsy.) This is also when the audience realizes Ride the Cyclone won’t end until all six have vied for life or death.

Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau) is the first to perform. (Don’t tell me “Ocean” preceding “O’Connell-Rosenberg” isn’t darkly whimsical.) She thinks to establish her superiority in the contest by intoning “What the World Needs is More People Like Me,” in which she disses her supposed pals. The tactic makes her inexorably unlikable, and doesn’t lend Ride the Cyclone early appeal.

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Although seemingly certain to improve on Ocean’s poison-ality turn, Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell) doesn’t hit the mark, either. A gay youth who knows no other gays, he strips off his singing-group outfit (Theresa Ham is the often-challenged costumer) to become, in “Noel’s Lament,” a Liza Minnelli-in-Cabaret clone who merely wants to be recognized as a decadent Weimar Republic floozy. Not the sort of ambition promising universal approval.

Then, in sequence: Mischa Bachinski (Gus Halper, nicely mastered Russian accent) sings the combined “This Song Is Awesome/Talia” to his comrades, showing that he’s tough on the outside and soft on the inside. Ricky Potts (Alex Wyse, on arguably superfluous crutches) aims for rock-star macho in “Space Ace Bachelor Man.” Jane Doe (Emily Rohm), in a Baby Jane Hudson wig and frock, gives “The Ballad of Jane Doe,” which is all about Jane Doe having no identity. Finally, the plump, deferential Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo) sings about caloric pleasure in “Sugarcloud.”

With the all-important voting the only plot twist left, this is the place to note (spoiler alert) that anyone who’s ever sat in an audience will know exactly who’s about to be restored to the living.

But hold it. There’s one other detail worth mentioning. When introducing himself, The Amazing Karnak announces that a guitar-playing rat — we earlier got a brief gander at the character — has been gnawing at the cord that allows his mechanism to operate. Within the hour, he says, his demise will figure in with the others, thus the voting must take place posthaste.

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Whimsy is as whimsy does; the same goes for dark whimsy, though Maxwell, Richmond, Rockwell and their creative team do leaven what’s frequently twee. Also notable are the special effects and illusions by Michael Curry Design and Hat Rabbit Studio — especially something eye-popping for Jane Doe –the fear-creating projections by Mike Tutaj.

There is no first among equals with this cast — they’re all super. And though the material they’re asked to perform is mighty trying, they do dignify much of it. Certainly the score is lively, if unmemorable, and it does get better as it progresses to “Sugarcloud,” which is truly catchy. Ride the Cyclone opens with “Dream of Life,” suggesting that life is a dream — hardly a startling new thought. It ends with “It’s Just a Ride” — more philosophizing of the same. Depending on your tolerance for such adventures, you may enjoy the Ride as well. Or, if you’re feeling darkly whimsical, you might want to get off.