About to board The Cyclone at Arena Stage but not sure what to expect out of this wild and weird musical? Here are seven facts about this ride of a show – #yeswewentthere – to get you ready (because, as The Amazing Karnak would tell us, seven is your lucky number).

I’ve never heard of Ride the Cyclone  before! What is it?

Ride the Cyclone is a quirky, edgy cult musical about six teen chamber choir singers (from the fictional “Uranium City,” Saskatchewan). Catapulted into post-life limbo after a freak accident while riding The Cyclone roller coaster, they encounter a mechanical fortune teller, The Amazing Karnak, who offers them the chance to sing their way back to life… but wait, only one of them will make it (it’s a lot more fun than this sounds!).

With book, music, and lyrics by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, Ride the Cyclone began its life at Atomic Vaudeville, a performance company in Victoria, British Columbia founded by Richmond and Britt Small. Since then, it’s grown and changed, with an American premiere at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2015 and an off-Broadway run in 2016.

What do critics say about it?

While creator Jacob Richmond jokes that his dad (eminent Canadian director Brian Richmond) saw the first production of this off-beat show and said, “This is dead on arrival,” we’re glad that others didn’t agree!

Charles Isherwood (then with The New York Times) named the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production a Critic’s Pick, calling it a “delightfully weird and just plain delightful show” that provides “the kind of thrills we look for in all musical comedies, however outlandish their subject matter: an engaging and varied score…and a supremely witty book.”

Ride the Cyclone is now 15 years old and, as of this writing, there are more than 30 active licenses of the production. Fun fact: it’s particularly popular with college and university theater groups.

How can I find out more?

You should visit ridethecyclone.com, where the world premiere cast recording is available for streaming. Whether you’re looking for a haunting melody, a hilarious rap, or a breakaway pop hit – you’ll find it. Originally inspired by cabaret, the show has expanded to include something for everyone. “The Ballad of Jane Doe,” the song of the decapitated, unidentified teen in the accident (yes, really), is a fan favorite. We also can’t resist the passion of Noel Gruber’s “Noel’s Lament,” where he sings about his fantasy life inspired by French noir cinema.

Want to dive even further? Check out this track-by-track commentary by the creators, Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell.

And you can follow @Cyclone_Musical on social media for fan art, updates on other productions, and more!

How has the show changed since its beginnings at Atomic Vaudeville?

One of the most exciting things about a new musical is its capacity to grow, change, and discover new moments that will surprise and delight its audience. Over 15 years, there have been numerous changes to the book and music of Ride the Cyclone.  Characters have come and gone. Songs have been cut and reinstated. Did you know choir member Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg’s ear worm anthem, “What the World Needs,” was once a more Gospel style song called “Play to Win”?

As Ride the Cyclone exploded in popularity, with multiple interpretations (which is bound to happen if you have 30 licenses out there), Richmond changed the nature of a character’s disability, to make sure he wasn’t perpetuating the trope of an able-bodied performer using  mobility aids. “This does not bar a performer with disability playing any of the seven roles,” Richmond explains, “In fact it’s encouraged. I want anyone to be able to play any character in the show. Mandating the use of mobility aids would do the exact opposite.”

Richmond notes that there have been a couple of productions already where characters were interpreted by performers with a disability, such as a production in Ohio where the character of Constance was in a wheelchair. “This [2023] revision [being staged at Arena] makes sure that an able-bodied performer is not using mobility aids as a theatrical device in future productions.”

Do you have any trivia I can use to impress my theater-savvy friends?

We’ve got you covered!

The Chamber Choir at the center of Ride the Cyclone hails from the fictional Uranium City in Saskatchewan. They famously came there for the “half-life” but stayed there for their “whole life” (little radioactivity humor for you). Uranium City may be made up, but Saskatchewan really IS the world’s largest supplier of uranium.

The most famous Cyclone roller coaster may be at Coney Island, but the show doesn’t take place there (Karnak tells us that he is the property of the Wonder Ville traveling fairground). Cyclone is a very popular name for a roller coaster, and we suggest the truly interested explore the 13,771 articles on https://coasterpedia.net/.

Narrating the events of the show is the mechanical fortuneteller the Amazing Karnak. Karnak can predict the cause, time, and place of someone’s death…but is usually set to “family fun novelty mode.” Mechanical fortune tellers like Karnak gained popularity in the penny arcades and boardwalks of 1930s, 40s, and 50s and had a resurgence in the late 1980s when one featured prominently in the movie “Big.” While we only have room in our heart for Karnak, many were named Zoltan, which is Hungarian for “sultan.”

Also, though the show far pre-dates the current conflict in the Ukraine, it’s particularly special to be producing a show prominently featuring a Ukrainian character at this moment in time. Bad-boy rapper Mischa Bachinski may inhabit a tough persona, but he reveals himself to be full of love and longing, especially for his homeland. Creator Richmond is originally from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, home to the largest population of Ukranian Canadians. Many of them are descendants of those who fled the 1932/33 Holodomor (or Great Famine) in Soviet Ukraine.

These characters sound unusual. How are they introduced on stage?

Though the teens in Ride the Cyclone are certainly unique, The Amazing Karnak distills each character to their essentials by sharing their birthday, their zodiac sign, and a brief description (“the nicest girl in town”). Karnak’s emphasis on birthdays suggests use of the personology system. You can read more about the system and the cast of characters on our blog.

And, if you want to know more about our production, we’ve got some pictures from first rehearsal and a teaser of “The Uranium Suite.” Production photos are up here. You may also want to check out some of set designer Scott Davis’ out-of-this-world work.

Where can I get tickets?

Okay, okay, you probably already know that you can go to arenastage.org/cyclone for tickets and further details, but we couldn’t resist the chance to highly recommend you should! Plus, the show is 90 minutes with no intermission – who doesn’t love that?

What you might not know is how many different discount programs we have; they’re all listed on our Savings Programs page with information about group sales, pay-your-age pricing for the 30 and under crowd (yes, really, aged 30 or under, you can literally pay your age), “HOTTIX” rush tickets, and many more.

A couple of specific performances you should know about:

  • Southwest Nights, where we offer exclusive $36 tickets to those who live or work in our SW neighborhood, are January 15 and 25
  • We will host an audio described performance on Saturday, January 28 at 2 p.m., and
  • An ASL interpreted performance (we’re super excited to bring these back) on Saturday, February 18 at 8 p.m.