Review: ‘Ride the Cyclone’ at Arena Stage will send you spinning


The Amazing Karnak, a mechanical fortune teller, brooks little competition as the main draw of “Ride the Cyclone,” the ingeniously dark and funny musical now at Arena Stage. But if you had to discount the sinister and snarky Karnak — the show’s presiding genius — the most arresting figure would be the spooky Jane Doe.

“Ride the Cyclone” imagines the supernatural yet warmly human aftermath of a freak roller-coaster accident that kills six teenage chamber choir singers. Or is it five singers? One of the victims, decapitated in the tragedy and known only as Jane Doe, arrives in the afterlife uncertain who she is.

In director Sarah Rasmussen’s vibrant production of Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell’s musical, mounted in association with McCarter Theatre Center, the girlish Jane Doe has a creepy china-doll face. The off-kilter chitchat of this unsettling character (Ashlyn Maddox through Jan. 29; Katie Mariko Murray, Feb. 1-19) stokes the show’s tension and mystery. So does her macabre but soaring cabaret-meets-art-song number, “The Ballad of Jane Doe” (“My soul, is it here?/ Or is it rotting somewhere with my head?”).

Jane Doe and the other victims find themselves, in the hereafter, competing in a contest run by the Amazing Karnak (Marc Geller, of Apple TV+’s “Severance,” acing an automaton’s jerky moves). The winner of the contest — whose rules Karnak breezily changes as he goes — will return to earthly life and leave Karnak’s limbo, which set designer Scott Davis renders as an warehouse atmospherically stacked with carnival parts.

Vying for the prize, the teen singers reveal wacky eccentricities. Noel Gruber (Nick Martinez), a gay Genet-quoting cinephile, fantasizes about being a femme fatale vamping through decadent Europe. The Ukraine-born Mischa Bachinski (Eli Mayer, radiating spot-on swagger) aspires to hard-drinking machismo but is actually a softy, discernible in his hip-hop number “This Song Is Awesome,” hilariously fogged with auto-tune.

Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Shinah Hey, golden voiced and very funny) is an overachiever who browbeats her friend Constance Blackwood (Gabrielle Dominique) and even dares scold Karnak. “I don’t know how it is in your culture, but in ours, playing games where people’s lives are on the table? Super illegal,” Ocean tsk-tsks.

While ostensibly competing, the young people often empathize with each other. That solidarity echoes in the staging, with the ensemble helping to conjure each teen’s life, such as when they slink around in pink extraterrestrial-cat ears, assisting the taciturn Ricky Potts (Matthew Boyd Snyder) as he recounts his weird sci-fi imaginings. (Trevor Bowen is costume designer; Katherine Freer designed the projections of unearthly vistas and more.)

The varied score has a pastiche-y sound, but it’s catchy. That trait has surely helped “Ride the Cyclone” build from its 2008 premiere in Canada to what has been described as “cult musical” status today.

Also a factor, the show’s poignant, witty mirroring of the human predicament: the roller-coaster that is life.

Ride the Cyclone Book, music and lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell. Directed by Sarah Rasmussen; original choreography, Jim Lichtscheidl; additional choreography, Tiger Brown (also associate director); music supervisor, Mark Christine; music director, Nick Wilders; lighting, Jiyoun Chang; sound, André Pluess. About 90 minutes. $66-$105. Through Feb. 19 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300.

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