In 1964 Bob Dylan wrote that ‘the times they are a-changin’, and he might just as well have been referring to the musical theatre in America as he was to the war in Vietnam. Ever since Galt McDermott composed Hair to prove that change was a-comin’ on Broadway as well, every now and then there’s an earthquake-type eruption in the New York theatre district which makes room for the likes of Capeman, The Last Ship, Tarzan, Rockabye Hamlet, and so many other shows which tried to introduce Broadway to the new music – the music of the new generations. Some like In The Heights, Kinky Boots, Hamilton were attached to books by established librettists or, in the case of Heights and Hamilton, to quadruple-threat talents like Lin Manuel Miranda who was raised on a diet of musical theatre from the Golden Age. In recent seasons, more of the successful pop writers have felt the urge to give Broadway a whirl, and in most cases they’ve come a cropper, for they hadn’t figured out that it takes more than just a sound and a beat to create a musical work that will endure. Gifted writers like Paul Simon, Cliff Jones, Phil Collins, Sting, Stew (titans all in the pop field) wrote shows that crashed and burned, and for good reason. I remember Mr. Collins for example, in an interview when his Tarzan opened, stating he had been shocked to learn how his songs had been transformed into something quite new when actors added characterization to them in performance. People come to see musical theatre to be entertained, yes — but also to be informed or enlightened or moved or involved.
The authors of Ride the Cyclone clearly wanted to join the pantheon of composers and authors who have learned their craft, honed their talents, and remembered that a musical is not a concert. It’s not an eclectic connecting of songs that don’t tell a story which involves its audience. In the beginning (and it wasn’t that long ago) musicals were crude, but they evolved through the talents of American immigrants who wanted to break from the traditions of the European operetta to their new country’s musically set hopes and dreams, entertainingly enriched by the songs and stories of George M. Cohan, then Irving Berlin, and finally Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, George Gershwin. Their work influenced and then trickled down effect to Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Kander and Ebb, Bock and Harnick, and their colleagues. But even these masters learned that a popular score alone did not make a hit musical show. Audiences learned to care about the stories these songs were attached to; light-hearted stories like those of the twenties and thirties, which evolved into the master works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, whose scores were attached to tales of substance, in which characters were allowed to reveal complexities, to add dimension to the stories they inhabited.
Change is inevitable, but it brings great risk along with it. Brooke Maxwell, a free lance musician-educator based out of Canada, and Jacob Richmond, a prize-winning playwright, are the authors of book, music, and lyrics for Ride The Cyclone, now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre off Broadway. Mr Richmond’s work in Victoria, Canada, has, in his own words:
sought to create raw theatrical events that represent the modern era….a barrage of styles, opinions, songs, genres and acts that create a central theme rather than a linear story.
We are told at the start by a Swami in a glass booth that we are about to meet 6 victims of a collapsed amusement park Cyclone ride, all of whom are dead. And there’s the rub — The authors have come up with an evening that is more a recital or concert than a musical. Without a story, we have no one to root for, and I remained unengaged. That’s a pity because everything else about the show is first-rate. The company of young performers – Lillian Castillo (Constance), Gus Halper (Misha), Karl Hamilton (Karnak), Emily Rohm (Jane Doe), Tiffany Tatreau (Ocean), Alex Wyse (Ricky), and Kholby Wardell (Noel) – are each given separate opportunities ranging from “Noel’s Lament” which offers Kholby Wardell a chance to strut his stuff, to “Jane Doe” in which the lovely Emily Rohm, playing a woman whose body has been separated from her head, somehow retains a very warm and fluid soprano voice. The others, separately and as an ensemble, sing the dozen songs which will lead to them picking one victim who will return to life.
Directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell, who is Chicago-based, with excellent credentials in musical theatre, a cast of seven does bring energy, enthusiasm, and talent to the setting of a dilapidated warehouse strewn with the wreckage of the Cyclone. There they must remain until their vote sends one of them back to the living. Alas, we like them all, but I for one did not get to know them well enough to care whether or not the mechanical Swami could deliver on his promised prize. Pockets of admirers gave the game cast well-earned encouragement at the calls.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Ride the Cyclone is playing through December 29, 2016, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre – 121 Christopher Street, in New York City. For tickets, go to the box office, call OVATIONTIX at (212) 352-3101, or toll free 866-811-4111, or purchase them online.