Review of Ride the Cyclone at Stray Dog Theatre

    The holiday tradition at Stray Dog Theatre is counterprogramming. Instead of indulging in the spirit of the season, Stray Dog avoids it.

    This December’s offering is Ride the Cyclone, a musical about a group of teenagers in limbo competing for once chance to live again. Stray Dog has assembled an excellent cast to present this unconventional but engaging show, with book, music, and lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell.

    The master of ceremonies for both the musical and the contest within the musical is the Amazing Karnak, a fortune telling machine that was designed to predict the particulars of a person’s death. It was set to a less disturbing mode at the carnival in Canada where it last functioned. Five members of a high school choir died there in accident while they were riding the Cyclone, the carnival’s roller coaster.

    At the start of the show, Karnak predicts its own death is imminent because a rat is gnawing away at its electrical cord. Before the rat finishes, Karnak encounters the spirits of the five dead students. He informs them they are there to participate in a contest to determine which one most deserves another chance to live. They will be joined in the competition by Jane Doe, an unidentified victim of the roller coaster accident. The winner will return to life.

    Karnak appears in the show as a prop that moves. The Stray Dog program does not identify the actor who provides Karnak’s voice, which conveys the power and capriciousness of the automaton.

    Under Justin Been’s direction, the top-notch Stray Dog performers give vivid personalities to all the contestants.

    Eileen Engel plays Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg, who is the most assertive and self-satisfied of the teens. She makes a case for her survival at the expense of the others, which turns out to have been a poor strategy when Karnak reveals how the winner will be determined.

    Mike Hodges is Noel Gruber, the most romantic boy, and the only gay boy, in a small Saskatchewan mining town. He fantasizes about being a sex worker in an earlier time.

    Riley Dunn plays Mischa Bachinski, the best Ukranian rapper in northeastern Saskatchewan and the angriest boy in town. He was adopted from Ukraine under false pretenses. When putting him up for adoption, Mischa’s mother lied about his age because she was dying from radiation poisoning acquired at Chernobyl.

    In life, Ricky Potts, played by Stephen Henley, needed crutches to walk and could not speak because of a degenerative disease. In limbo, his afflictions are gone. Ricky is the most imaginative boy in town. He believes visitors from space chose him to save an alien race.

    Dawn Schmid plays Jane Doe, who carries a headless doll. Her body was found without its head after the accident, so no one knew who she was. Even she doesn’t know—she has no memory of her former life.

    The submissive Constance Blackwood, played by Grace Langford, is desperate for Olive’s approval and accepts abusive treatment. The accident changes Constance’s view of her life for the better.

    The ensemble brings unflagging commitment and energy to the intriguing musical numbers, which feature vibrant choreography by Michael Hodges and spirited playing by the band. Its members are Michaela Kuba, Adam Rugo, Joe Winters, and music director Leah Schultz.

    The show benefits from the contributions from Tyler Duenow’s lighting, Justin Been’s projections, Eileen Engel’s costumes, Jacob Baxley’s sound, and Josh Smith’s scenic designer.

    Ride the Cyclone continues Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through December 17 at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue. There are additional performances on Sunday, December 11, and Wednesday, December 14. All performances begin at 8 p.m.

    —Gerry Kowarsky

    Photo by John Lamb
    From the left, Stephen Henley, Eileen Engel, Karnak, Riley Dunn, Grace Langford, Dawn Schmid, and Mike Hodges in
    Ride the Cyclone.