Ride the Cyclone, from Atomic Vaudeville. Written by Jacob Richmond & Brooke Maxwell. Directed by Richmond & Britt Small. Until December 3 at Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Ave. 416-504-7529 or artsboxoffice.ca
The final recital of a newly dead troupe of teenage choristers is a rollercoaster of a ghost cabaret in Ride the Cyclone, which opened last night at Theatre Passe Muraille. With the campy pleasures of the latest Johnny Depp fantasy, the inflected voice of a slot-machine fortune-teller narrates this brilliantly entertaining musical written by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, and directed by Richmond and Britt Small. Part Assassins, part Cabaret, part New Waterford Girl, part Why Shoot the Teacher? this spectacular and unlikely show about a circus accident gusts into Toronto on wave of fresh and funny CanCon air.
The symbiotic tragedies and glories of small-town life and adolescence get Technicolor staging in this inspired show that has played to thrilled audiences in small theatres across Canada. Constance Blackwood (played by Kelly Hudson) discovers the heights of being whilst plummeting to her death over the failing town she felt ashamed to love. Jane Doe (Sarah Pelzer) casts a cool gaze on how it feels to be the one headless, unclaimed, and unidentified body of this horrific accident. Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell)—the only remaining person in the town “Diversity Parade” after the “adorable Chinese couple” (who are actually Korean) take off—discovers the life he would have loved to live as a female sex-worker in post-war Paris.
Part of the appeal of this show is its combination of a timeless and international cabaret aesthetic with a very definite setting: the characters are all born in 1993 and live, until their untimely deaths, in Uranium City, a slowly vanishing town in north-west Saskatchewan. For a show that includes a cannon of sparkles shooting into the audience, a giant glowing-eyed rat as the bass player, and an interplanetary “Bachelor Man” singing a major set in metallic spandies, the show is remarkably understated. While the characters’ exuberant personalities and their stunning voices shine in every act, the show gleefully withholds tidy explanations, and lets viewers make what they will of Richmond and Maxell’s many well-drawn ironies on their own. For example, a character adopted by parents in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, was born to a mother who cared for victims of Chernobyl, a uranium disaster. Not simply a tragicomedy about teenagers, the tacit story being told here is about life lived around chemical industries.
The retro art direction of the production highlights just how antique this kind of small-town mining industry really is, compared to, for example, Alberta’s oil sands, an operation on a scale unimaginable sixty years ago when uranium mining began in northern Saskatchewan. Highway 63: The Fort Mac Show told the first part of the oil-sands story last winter during its run at Passe Muraille, but we can only wait for the theatre that gets made in thirty years about the lives of those even now being born nearby. (For an amazing take on how chemical-industry life plays out in Sarnia, see TRB-contributor Brett Story’s remarkable film, Land of Destiny.)
Though it examines the well-trodden theme of small-town adolescence, save for a few touchy moments when the new-Canadian character skates a bit close to caricature, Ride the Cyclone never rests on clichés. Each of these teens is idiosyncratic, vivid, and charming for his or her unexpectedness. On the one hand the show is resolutely based in Saskatchewan, but stories about burnt-out mining towns could be set almost anywhere. England for example, we thought, as we mused about a West-End production.
Rumour has it that Theatre Passe Muraille welcomed the show partly so that other producers as well as audiences could see how it played in a larger venue. The exposure will pay off—at the opening-night party, wildly amused theatregoers kept whispering about futures in New York, and apparently an Off-Broadway producer had been in the audience. The all-hallows atmosphere these singing ghosts create resonates with the story they tell—that all youth must end, all towns must end, and all shows too. See this one before it’s too late.