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  • Alexandra Garfield


You may not think that a musical can start out with six deaths and still be uplifting and funny without negating the tragedy of loss.

But Ride the Cyclone manages that emotional feat. This vaudevillian musical from Chicago Shakespeare Theater keeps you guessing until the very end.


A broken roller coaster track frames the stage in a black-box theater on the top floor of Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. The sharp chemical smell of atomized mineral oil saturates the air as mist wafts from fog machines throughout the atmospheric performance.

Bittersweet and uproariously funny, Ride the Cyclone forces audiences to consider life and mortality. The highs and lows of life swirl together in one musical number after another. The show will leave you wanting to make the most out of every day. Ride the Cyclone is 90 minutes long and runs through Nov. 15.

The show opens on The Amazing Karnak, a robotic, amusement park fortune teller with the ability to foresee death. Karnak introduces the audience to six teenagers from St. Cassian’s chamber choir who crashed to their death when the fair’s Cyclone roller coaster derailed. The twist is that Karnak possesses the ability to bring one of them back to life.

Karnak invites the six teens to compete for their second chance at life. Five use their chamber-choir skills to explain their pasts and share their hopes for the future. The choir members step forward one by one, Chorus-Line style, to tell the stories of their lives or what they imagined their lives could have been. The sixth contestant is a Jane Doe, a body found headless and never identified in the wake of the Cyclone crash.

None of the actors can remember her or her story. As a result, her song reflects on the nature of memory and humanity itself. Her haunting ballad paired with impeccable staging marks the emotional pinnacle of the show.

While, logically, it is unlikely that no one from the choir would remember their headless friend, the aura of mystery surrounding the character is captivating enough for the audience to dismiss the issue.

The score spans everything from pop to glam rock to a post-war cabaret number. One song transitions from rap to an Eastern-European folk song. Shockingly, it works. The score holds together as a cohesive unit to tell the diverse stories of the teenagers.

Despite, and perhaps because of its diversity, the music is a weak spot, though. The songs don’t stay in your head after the show.

In contrast, the show’s staging will haunt your dreams. Directed and choreographed by multiple Jeff Award-winner, Rachel Rockwell. The seven-person cast constantly rearranges itself to illustrate the worlds sung about by the teenagers. Actors play everything from Hippie parents to space cats without losing the individuality of their core characters.

The musical began as a song cycle from the Canadian theater company Atomic Vaudeville. The music acquired a cult following across Canada before being adapted into a full show by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell.

And who gets their life back? You’ll never guess – until the very end reveals all.

“The development of new work is essential to Chicago Shakespeare,” said Creative Producer Rick Boynton. “We are thrilled to contribute to the journey of this piece, and share storytelling that is so unique.”

Originally published on Medill Reports Chicago, November 2015.


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