ARTS & CULTURE
By Pamir Kiciman
CARRBORO — Live theater done right elicits a direct response from the audience. There’s nothing quite like it, even on TV sitcoms “recorded in front of a live audience.”
In last Saturday’s performance of “Ride the Cyclone: The Musical” (RTC), the spot-on delivery, singing and exuberant energy from the stage spilled into the auditorium for a raucously enthusiastic party that lasted the entire show.
Brought to life by a young theater company in the Triangle area — which The Local Reporter visited last fall for its production of “Into the Woods” — RTC tips its hat to dark comedy musicals such as “Beetlejuice,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but has its own genre-bending take which holds up incredibly well.
Referring to the other hits, “the adult themes and language in this show will feel familiar but are not as explicit,” Melissa Dombrowski said.
Dombrowski is the artistic director of Stone Soup Theatre Company (SSTC), and the director and choreographer of RTC.
A mission-driven company, SSTC isn’t here only to entertain. It strives to bring theater to the Chapel Hill and Durham area and make it accessible by, for example, providing tickets to underserved communities. It also insists on paying the artists in its productions.
“Our primary goal was to provide roles for younger actors,” said Dombrowski in regards to casting RTC. “It was important to us to showcase younger talent in our community.”
“Ride the Cyclone” follows the story of five teenagers from a Canadian chamber choir and a sixth unsuspecting teen whose lives freakishly perish on the Cyclone roller coaster. Coming to a state of limbo, they are faced with a mechanical fortune-teller who tells them they must compete to return to life by telling a story, but only one will make it. Each character performs a song exploring their unfulfilled lives and personal worldviews. Jane Doe, the headless sixth teenager, doesn’t remember anything before the accident that beheads her.
“When I finally heard the soundtrack, every single song was so interesting that I listened to it in full and in order. That’s not something that typically happens,” recalled Dombrowski after having the musical recommended to her by a voice teacher she works with.
SSTC believes it’s the first company to produce this show in North Carolina, and certainly within the Triangle. With music, lyrics and book by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, “Ride the Cyclone” is relatively new, having been around 15 years with Canadian and American productions. The musical has recently taken off out of the blue with stans on TikTok.
With a tight, seven-person ensemble, Stone Soup’s production is cohesive despite the differences in age and experience. It has two cast members who are still in high school, a UNC-Chapel Hill student and those only now starting on their careers.
Kayla Petrille is the most experienced and teaches voice lessons full time. She doubles as the cast’s vocal coach and features a bell-like soprano in her portrayal of Jane Doe.
Typical of SSTC, there’s a live four-piece band led to excellence by Music Director Joanna Sisk-Purvis, who conducts and plays first keyboard.
Sisk-Purvis’ hand is noticeable in evening out the range of voices — some of which are still maturing — and abilities.
The level of acting Dombrowski draws out from cast members speaks to the fresh young talent available in the local area the company intended to showcase, but also to her direction and coaching.
The ArtCenter’s black-box-like stage and cavernous, asymmetrical auditorium are perfect for the dingy and shadowy purgatory the six characters find themselves in. With The Amazing Karnak permanently ensconced in a fortune-telling booth complete with a crystal ball stage left, John Paul Middlesworth’s set reflects a carnival theme with a circus tent as the centerpiece.
Livia McIntyre portrays pack leader Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg as the overachiever and bully she is and delivers the character’s willful rejection of any self-reflection with a subtle zaniness.
Miles “Wyn” Purvis is perfectly sardonic and droll as Karnak, looming over the whole thing. Cosmo McCusker throws it down as the Ukrainian, hip-hopping “bro” Mischa Bachinski. Lily Grey Beede plays Constance Blackwood with the pent-upness of being Ocean’s bestie while being constantly demeaned by her. Gabrielle Tessier moves through Ricky Potts’ character arc with increasing momentum and spirit. Brady Bowman shines as Noel Gruber, especially in a cabaret sequence that’s skillful and fun. And Petrille embodies the broken marionette physicality of Jane Doe without missing a beat.
“Despite it being a comedy and a musical, the show touches on a lot of coming-of-age concerns such as sexuality, disability, personal identity, interpersonal relationships, anxiety about the future and mortality which I think makes it all the more worthwhile to produce,” Dombroski noted.
“Ride the Cyclone” requires great acting, comedic timing and some dancing, in addition to the singing, and presents some technical challenges, as well as great execution from the musicians in the pit. These were all in place in Saturday night’s performance.
What holds the show together are the irresistible musical numbers in several genres. From autotune rap, to European cabaret, to prog rock, vaudevillian sequences and other toe-tapping tunes, all the songs are distinct and catchy.
The songs excel not only musically, but in how wittily they reveal the inner selves of the characters.
In fact, humor is a huge element of the show. It’s a laugh a minute and if you’re distracted you may miss the rapid-fire and truly funny jokes.
The ensemble’s performances on Saturday drew loud and frequent applause from the audience, together with whoops and hollers that made the experience extra special.
Don’t miss this carnival ride.
There’s no intermission and the show runs for 90 minutes. For tickets and the remaining available dates, click this link.