“It gets weird now,” an actor informs us about two-thirds of the way through “Ride the Cyclone.” Um, now?
The show opens with a corpse that is headless but, somehow, can still sing (beautifully). One character is a zombie toy, with the face of Mrs. Lovett from “Sweeney Todd” atop a broken-doll figure that is decidedly off-putting even before she starts talking enthusiastically about animals who eat their young. There’s a Ukrainian hip-hop song, complete with Auto-Tune. One zazzy number, about “a hooker with a heart of blackest charcoal,” mashes up every Kander and Ebb musical (including “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” soon to open at Theater Latte Da). A human-sized rat (actually, Shannon van der Reck) plays the electric bass. And, without giving away specifics of the effects in a show that amounts to one funhouse surprise after another, at least a couple things happen that I’m sure even ride-or-die Jungle Theater fans never thought they’d see on that small but mighty stage.
Beginning with the roller coaster deaths of six high school chorus members and proceeding through a series of profane sketches that salute pop and musical theater greats with a wink, “Ride the Cyclone” is hilarious and delightful from its first moment to its finale, a nod to “Cats” (probably?) during which one of the youths could earn a chance to return to the living.
Jacob Richmond’s inventive book is so assured that even a bit of “Our Town” earnestness near the end feels like it fits right in between the profanity and carnage. Richmond and Brooke Maxwell’s songs are smart pastiches that work even if you don’t know the songs they’re making fun of. Jim Lichtscheidl’s spot-on choreography runs the gamut from show choir to show-choir-tries-to-get-funky. And director Sarah Rasmussen and her crew blend it all together with the confidence of knowing when to push the madcap and when to rein it back in.
The cast is aces, but just to mention a few: Making her Jungle debut, Gabrielle Dominique oozes a winning, Maya Rudolph-esque inventiveness and rocks a Lizzo-style, mid-song flute solo. We’re told her character, Constance, is the nicest girl in town, but Dominique balances innocence and enthusiasm with a sense that that’s not the whole story.
Jungle veteran Becca Hart, as that headless corpse/zombie doll, shows off her lovely soprano and keeps us guessing about whether her character is an unsettling naif or a maniac who’d just as soon stop with the show tunes and come out in the audience to slaughter us. And, literally every Ukrainian-accent-by-way-of-a-James-Bond-villain word out of Michael Hanna’s mouth is funny.
If I have any complaint, it’s that the show could slow down just a touch to let a couple of key plot points sink in, but I’m not even sure I agree with myself on that. Eventually, everything comes together and, after all, this pop musical about the fallout from a roller coaster accident is supposed to be a wild, wild “Ride.”
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