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Review: Ride the Cyclone a big-hearted, subversively funny must-see

Victoria-made musical is hilarious and entertaining with complexity behind the laughs
Keith MacMillan sings Space Aged Bachelor Man, accompanied by a phalanx of dancing cats, during Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s production of Ride the Cyclone at The Roxy Theatre through Aug. 14. BLUE BRIDGE REPERTORY THEATRE

What a relief. A new production of Ride the Cyclone — the Victoria musical about teens who perish in a roller coaster accident — is every bit as offbeat and hilarious as its predecessors.

It’s been a long, strange and rather incredible trip for creators Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell. Back in 2008, local troupe Atomic Vaudeville debuted Ride the Cyclone as an alt-musical romp with an edgy South Park-style sensibility. Richmond says he didn’t expect a second go-round. Yet the very opposite happened, with notable productions in Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta and an off-Broadway run in 2016.

The show’s enduring popularity continues. This year Ride the Cyclone will be mounted in Washington D.C. and Brazil. This city’s biggest theatrical hit is also being revived by Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre, with Richmond and Treena Stubel directing. The show — jam-packed with loopy, wonderful songs — is big-hearted, subversively funny and not to be missed.

Karnak, a robotic fortune-teller, narrates with dead-pan irony from a decaying amusement park (one of the fairground’s “prizes” is a used Iron Maiden t-shirt reeking of “carny pong”). He tells how the St. Cassian High School Choir from Uranium City, Sask., became ensnared in a post-death limbo after their roller-coaster went off the rails.

Each of the six teens is an outcast. Ocean, played by Madeleine Humeny, is an obnoxious straight-A student who sunnily declares, “I’m the best by any metric in society” (think of a young Kellyanne Conway). Her best friend Constance (Yasmin D’Oshun) tries to shuck off her own nice-girl image by losing her virginity in a Porta Potty. We also meet baseball capped Ukrainian rapper Mischa, portrayed by Matt Coulson with beefy gusto.

Arguably the juiciest role is Noel Gruber — a gay teen who worked in a Taco Bell. He professes to adore French New Wave cinema, Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett and fantasizes about a decadent lifestyle as a “hooker with a heart of black charcoal.” For Wednesday’s preview at the Roxy Theatre, a fishnet-stockinged Carter Gulseth offered a suitably scenery-chewing rendition of Noel’s Lament, a Euro-cabaret number with tango hip-grinds, earning the evening’s loudest cheers.

The weirdness got even weirder with Ricky (Keith MacMillan), a friendless yet charming wacko living in a comic-book-inspired imaginary world. MacMillan kicked out the jams with his athletic rendition of Space Aged Bachelor Man, accompanied by a phalanx of dancing cats. (Earlier versions of the show portrayed Ricky as a disabled teen with crutches — a wrinkle that’s been jettisoned in this incarnation.)

There’s no one stranger than Jane Doe, the choir member who was somehow never identified because she was decapitated in the accident. Anna Van Der Hooft plays Jane as a doll-like automaton with spooky black contact lenses. What made her performance truly stand out, however, was her robust soprano (she’s a trained operatic singer). The poignant Ballad of Jane Doe was dispatched with clarion brio and a needle-sharp sense of pitch.

A brisk 95 minutes with no intermission, Ride the Cyclone is hilarious and entertaining. But that’s not all. What bunts the show to a higher artistic level is the complexity and humanity simmering behind the belly laughs. No character is allowed to be two-dimensional.

For instance, a goody-good like Ocean could be an easy, even cliched comedic target. Realizing this, Richmond and Maxwell dug much deeper, revealing her conflicted nature and ultimately showing a flawed person capable of transcendent kindness. Ditto for Constance, who discovers to her surprise there’s charm in small-town life, or Mischa, whose gangsta rap machismo is belied by an underlayer of puppy-dog warmth.

The show, shoe-horned with rollicking songs and dances, does look a trifle cramped on the Roxy Theatre’s small stage. The cast cavorts on a revolving stage — a device perhaps unnecessary given the cramped quarters. On this particular night a few sound cues misfired — a minor quibble, and not unusual for a preview performance. Overall the show is well rehearsed; the vocal harmonies are particularly successful. This unorthodox summertime romp, continuing to Aug. 14 at the Roxy, is well worth seeking out.