Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s ‘Ride the Cyclone’ at Navy Pier

The Ferris wheel may be gone, but you can still “Ride the Cyclone” at Navy Pier.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST) is currently presenting the U.S. premiere of the decidedly offbeat – and entirely engaging – “Ride the Cyclone” in the Theater Upstairs. It’s a smart blend of musical genres, cultural references, quirky characters, and impossible circumstances and I enjoyed every minute of this always witty, occasionally edgy and even, in the end, lovely piece.

It’s got to be difficult to write a musical that mines the humor in the untimely death-by-roller coaster of the St. Cassian Chamber Choir (late of Saskatchewan). But Canadians are a hearty breed (perhaps it’s the cold?), and co-creators Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell (sharing credit for book, music and lyrics), who originally produced the piece north of the border with Canadian theater company Atomic Vaudeville, have found just the right balance between comedy and tragedy.

The premise is that after the accident, the five members of the choir, along with an unclaimed Jane Doe (Emily Rohm), arrive in a carnival waiting room presided over by The Amazing Karnak, a mechanical fortune teller (à la the beloved movie “Big”). Here they must vie for the chance to return to life, the one hitch being all must agree on who wins.

The casting of this show is a small miracle. Every member of the ensemble is given a chance to shine, and each song is a gem – and from an entirely different genre, including glam rock, rap, pop and, yes, even French cabaret. You will be haunted by the ethereal voice of Rohm, who manages to be at once creepy and heartbreaking. The golden-throated Russell Mernagh plays Ukranian bad boy Mischa Bachinski, and stuns as he easily switches between rap and a glorious tenor; Lillian Castillo is all heart and charm as Constance Blackwood, the nice girl who loves her hometown.

Jackson Evans, who plays the once-sickly Ricky Potts, does a great homage to David Bowie, ably abetted by a chorus of cats and aliens. Kholby Wardell is the gay poet/dreamer Noel Gruber, whose secret inner life combines the heart of Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf with the voice of Michael Bublé. Tiffany Tatreau takes on the role of Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg, the class overachiever, who just knows that she is the most deserving of resurrection, and she will talk and sing at you until you nearly agree. Karl Hamilton, unrecognizable under the mask of The Amazing Karnak, charts the action of the show, and he is hilarious.

The production team, led by CST Creative Producer Rick Boynton and Director/Choreographer Rachel Rockwell and Musical Director Doug Peck, have combined forces to bring the piece to pulsing, breathing life. Special kudos to Mike Tutaj for his beautiful projection design, utilized brilliantly in the staging.

“Ride the Cyclone” is indeed a roller coaster ride, but one you’ll happily take as a theater-goer. How exciting to discover new work that is both accessible and fun.


Ride the Cyclone” runs through Nov. 15 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave., Chicago. For tickets, click here.

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