Chicago Theatre Review
A Dream of Life
Ride the Cyclone – Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
A roller coaster called The Cyclone at a Canadian amusement park malfunctions and six high school students are tragically killed. The teenagers eventually accept that they’re in purgatory, teetering on the brink of life and death. One of them, they learn, will be chosen to return to the world of the living, while the rest of them will remain resting in eternal peace. That’s the premise for this unusual, unconventional, supernatural new musical, originally written as a song cycle for the Atomic Vaudeville Theatre Company. The talented young creative duo of Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond collaborated to flesh out this eerie theatrical piece, which now has a cult following all over Canada. American audiences are finally being treated to this captivating new musical, that’s part “Forever Plaid,” part “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and entirely original and unique. This, in itself, is noteworthy and much-welcomed.
Directed and choreographed by Chicago’s own multitalented phenom, Rachel Rockwell, with the same spirit and drive as her many other Jeff-nominated and honored productions, this new musical is quirky, exciting and quite moving. About a dozen new songs, under Doug Peck’s astute musical direction, are primarily musical portraits that depict each character. They’re all clever and catchy, especially as played by Michael Kaish’s five-member rock combo. Ms. Rockwell’s staging and choreography is effervescent and practically burns up the floor. All of this joy and magic splashes everywhere over Scott Davis’ colorful, ghostly, vaudeville stage-inspired setting, framed by broken roller coaster tracks. Stationed downstage left is a mysterious-looking booth. As the story unfolds and the music revs up, we discover that it houses The Amazing Karnak, one of those automated fortunetelling robots, who emcees and narrates this macabre tale while interacting with the other characters. This all-knowing, god-like character is brilliantly brought to life by the gifted actor, Karl Hamilton.
Ms. Rockwell’s ensemble is well-cast and simply fantastic. A beguiling, cunning Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg, the self-taught leader of the pack, is played to perfection by recent Roosevelt University graduate, Tiffany Tatreau. This petite powerhouse may be a newcomer to the Chicago professional scene, but her auspicious debut on the CST stage confirms Ms. Tatreau is a bonafide star. Toward the other characters, she easily alternates between guardianship and gall and her songful soliloquy, “What the World Needs is People Like Me,” is sensational. Lillian Castillo, so excellent as the star of recent productions, such as “Hairspray,” “Seussical” and “In the Heights,” adds one more show-stopping performance to her resume. As Constance Blackwood, the kind, lovably zaftig teenager with a deep secret, Ms. Castillo claims to be Ocean’s BFF. However, deep down inside, she’s a young lady who just needs to be respected, loved and heard; and with this gifted singer’s astounding voice, that’s never a problem. Constance’s 11th hour rock number, “Sugarcloud,” is a real showstopper and confirms that Ms. Castillo is an earthshaking force of nature.
Kholby Wardell is the only cast member from the original Canadian cast. He once again plays closeted gay teenager, Noel Gruber. The actor balances crankiness with caring, as he plays a small town kid whose fantasized self-image is a Marlena Dietrich-inspired Blue Angel, captivating in a production number entitled “Noel’s Lament.” Mr. Wardell effortlessly demonstrates Noel’s genuine kindness toward his friends with a fierce fashion sense. Handsome Russell Mernagh is excellent as bad boy Misha Bachinski, the Russian-born teenager who immigrated to this small Canadian town. His burning hot physique, sexy dance moves and fine voice make Misha’s heartfelt “Awesome/Talia” that much more beautiful. His number is enhanced by Mike Tutaj’s ethereal projections, displayed so originally.
Chicago’s favorite funnyman, Jackson Evans, is not only hilarious but incredibly heartbreaking as Ricky Potts. A teenager who, in his youth, lost both his mobility and his voice, in this limbo land of oblivion between life and death Ricky suddenly finds he’s able to walk and talk, once more. As the musical’s dance captain, Mr. Evans shows he’s got all the right moves, and in his rockin’ “S.A.B.M” the actor takes center stage. Of everyone in this cast, Mr. Evans demonstrates the most empathy toward his fellow victims, and his face is a monitor of what’s in this kid’s heart.
But perhaps the most beautiful, memorably-played character in this production is created by the always astounding actor/singer/dancer, Emily Rohm. Known for her fine portrayals of Belle, Mary Poppins and Marian the Librarian, Ms. Rohm is mesmerizing as Jane Doe, the unidentified, innocent young girl who, we learn in the show’s first moments, was decapitated in the roller coaster accident. Since her remains were never claimed, the teenager wanders alone through this ghostly carnival landscape without knowing her identity. Jane sadly carries a headless toy effigy in her arms. Her new noggin is a life-size porcelain doll’s head, blond and expressionless, with eyes that penetrate the darkness (kudos to Theresa Ham and Melissa Veal for their wonderful costume, wig and makeup design). Ms. Rohm provides the very heart and soul of this story, and her “Ballad of Jane Doe” is performed with honesty and a crystal clarity that absolutely brings down the house.
These days an original musical, not based upon a book, a movie or another play, is a real cause for celebration. This new, 90-minute show is as unique as it is both funny and heartbreaking. The writing/composing team of Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell have created an original play that’s peppered with exciting dialogue and songs. Rachel Rockwell has staged, choreographed and guided her talented cast to a production that’s as thrilling as any Broadway experience. “Ride the Cyclone” is a wonderful, touching and memorable roller coaster ride of a theatrical experience, for teen and adult audiences alike. With the show’s supernatural atmosphere, it’s especially timely with Halloween just around the corner. This is, quite simply, a beautiful “Dream of Life” come true.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 7-November 8 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in their Upstairs theater.
Tickets are available by calling the CST box office at 312-595-5600 or by going to the Theater’s website at www.chicagoshakes.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.