Hayes Theatre, May 28


Imagine watching a musical through a kaleidoscope, while the music splinters between genres. Imagine one that touches upon high art and popular culture like a butterfly flitting between flowers. (What other musical references both ABBA and Jean Genet?) Above all, imagine a musical that does black humour like Beckett.

Yes, really.

First aired 2008, Ride the Cyclone, is yet another show to trash musical theatre’s putative rule book, as West Side Story did in 1957, Sunday in the Park with George did in 1984 and Hedwig and the Angry Inch did in 1998, among others.

Bailey Dunnage. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Penned by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell (aided by Alan Schmuckler) and here having its Australian premiere, its dark premise sets the tone: six 17-year-old school choir members from Canada’s loser town of Uranium are killed when a roller-coaster – the “Cyclone” – has a catastrophic failure. This catapults them into limbo where Karnak, an amusing, disembodied, automaton head, peering into a crystal ball (ideally voiced by Pamela Rabe), proclaims that each will tell a story, after which a unanimous vote of support will win one teen restoration to… life! So, no pressure.

In Richard Carroll’s dazzling production, Benjamin Brockman’s set seems to elongate the Hayes stage, as though we are seeing it through the wrong end of binoculars, with twisted bits of roller-coaster track climbing the walls. Hidden behind this is a quintet led by Victoria Falconer, which must be across more idioms than some musicians play in their entire careers.

The show inherently combines teen-scream mayhem with existentialism, and then layers in sophisticated wit and theatricality, while giving each member of the young cast a purpose for delivering a show-stopper. All six deliver.

The pert, bright, appallingly self-satisfied Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (an admirable Karis Oka) goes first, but forgets she must win the others’ hearts and minds, rather than just impressing Karnak and herself. Noel Gruber (Bailey Dunnage), the town’s lone gay, by contrast, dares to bare his soul, and perform as his secret alter ego, Monique Gibeau, a prostitute in post-war France who dies of typhoid. Fabulously choreographed by Shannon Burns, with appropriately noirish lighting (Ryan McDonald) and costumes (Esther Zhong), his routine is so captivating that even Ocean twigs she just blew the sympathy vote.

Lincoln Elliott. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Lincoln Elliott shines as Mischa Bachinski, an adopted Ukrainian who’s the town’s self-proclaimed bad egg. He raps to expunge his rage, and then rushes us from baseball caps to peasant dresses, and a flashback to his Ukrainian village where his one true love lives. It gets even nuttier when the shy, withdrawn Ricky Potts (an equally good Justin Gray) reveals his inner self to be a comic book hero with a chorus of cats singing Space Age Bachelor Song.

But these four are upstaged by Ava Madon’s Jane Doe. Jane was beheaded in the accident and left unidentified. Made otherworldly by Ashleigh Grace’s makeup, Madon unleashes her soprano on The Ballad of Jane Doe, amid a dreamlike routine with umbrellas that look like they’ve been eaten by giant moths.

Finally comes Constance (Mel O’Brien), supposedly Ocean’s best friend, but more the butt of her formidable cruelty, who sings of the accident; of how it felt to cherish life just for a moment as she flew through the air to oblivion.

A song or two drop away in quality, as perhaps does the ending, and some choreography can be tightened, but Cyclone excels with its mad mix of ingredients and positive moral, no less: one that’s neither pontificating nor saccharine.

Until June 22.

Ride The Cyclone