If your knees go weak at the mere sight of a roller coaster, and you shrink in your seat whenever a Six Flags commercial comes on television, you may want to think twice before snapping up a ticket to “Ride the Cyclone,” a musical comedy about, odd as it seems, a gruesome accident at an amusement park that takes the lives of six teenagers.
Doesn’t sound like something worth singing and dancing about, does it?
But for all who aren’t coaster-phobes, this delightfully weird and just plain delightful show, which opened on Wednesday at the Lucille Lortel Theater, will provide the kind of thrills we look for in all musical comedies, however outlandish their subject matter: an engaging and varied score, knocked out of the park by a superlative cast, and a supremely witty book.
The production, courtesy of MCC Theater, is written by Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, and directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell, who performed the same chores when this Canadian-born show made its American premiere in Chicago last year. Most of the gifted actors are here reprising their roles, and I couldn’t be happier to encounter them again.
We meet the ill-fated teenagers, all members of a school choir, and neatly dressed as such, when they are, technically, already dead, despite a flashback or two. They were killed when the title contraption malfunctioned, sending them hurtling through the air to their doom.
They have landed in a strange purgatory presided over by an old amusement park attraction, the Amazing Karnak, a mechanical fortune teller with glowing orbs for eyes, his sepulchral voice and dust-dry humor provided by Karl Hamilton. Karnak reveals that he can restore one of the students to the land of the living, but only one. To choose the lucky survivor, he has devised a macabre game, allowing each in turn to make his or her case.
What follows is a series of songs in which the bewildered teenagers lift the lid on their dreams, singing and dancing for their lives, although the tone throughout is gently satirical.
The solos fit the personalities of the singers as snugly as their neat uniforms. Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (her parents, briefly seen, were laid-back hippies), played with alpha-girl pep by Tiffany Tatreau, belts out a hilarious pop song in which she alternately sings her own praises (“What the world needs is people like me,” runs the chorus) and eviscerates her competitors. Even her supposed bestie, Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo), is minced to pieces when Ocean sums up her future prospects thus: “Soccer mom, minivan, four little brats, no steady man.”
Upon receiving the news that — oops! — the winner will be chosen by unanimous vote, Ocean quickly enters damage-control mode, telling the Ukrainian-born Mischa Bachinski (Gus Halper), “I even celebrate your culturally ingrained alcoholism,” and the gay Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell): “I love you! You challenged my preconceived notions that all gay dudes are fun to be around!”
Ms. Tatreau’s hilarious turn regularly dominates the proceedings — Ocean has a firm opinion, usually catty, about everyone and everything — but all of the performers are terrific. Ms. Castillo’s insecure Constance huddles in the shadow of Ocean most of the time, eventually slipping out of her shell to deliver a celebratory rock song of self-empowerment. As Mischa, who styles himself a would-be rapper and delivers, naturally, an auto-tuned number dripping funny bling jokes, Mr. Halper nails the combination of swagger and grievance that marks the character.
No less terrific are Mr. Wardell, as the only gay kid in the small Canadian town where the characters went to school. When Noel’s turn to strut his stuff comes, he reveals that in his fantasy life he’s a female “hooker with a heart of black charcoal,” plying her wares in postwar France, modeled on Marlene Dietrich at her decadent best. His Kurt Weill-flavored number is among the freshest and funniest in the show.
And while his role is not the flashiest, Alex Wyse is endearing as Ricky Potts, who is disabled but flings aside his crutches — hey, this is the fantasy afterlife, after all — to claim his dream persona as a prophet from another planet, where life-forms evolved from cats. (The lineaments of the plot bear a slight resemblance to that of “Cats.”)
There is also a spooky sixth contestant, identified only as Jane Doe because (ick) she was decapitated in the accident, and her head was never found. Played with a plaintive presence by Emily Rohm, with scary coal-black contact lenses making her even eerier, she moves with a doll-like gait and, appropriately enough, sings a quasi-operatic aria that underscores her resemblance to Olympia from Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”
Ms. Rockwell, a leading director of musicals in Chicago (I saw her fine “Brigadoon” a few years back at the Goodman Theater), has made the most of the small stage, festooned with an antique proscenium and evocative, faded amusement park bric-a-brac by the designer Scott Davis. Although the show is primarily a series of solo turns, the staging is dynamic and is enhanced by the extensive use of video projections (by Mike Tutaj) showing us snapshots of the kids in their former lives.
These occasionally strike a melancholy note, as we glimpse cheery faces and festive family photographs that attest to the lives so cruelly cut short. But “Ride the Cyclone” never dawdles on such poignancy — in fact, it scrupulously avoids it. For a musical about dead teenagers, it’s high-spirited and just plain fun from start to finish — like an all-access pass to Disneyland.