Creepy and comic ‘Ride the Cyclone’ takes a leap at BSU

The cast in the solid Bowie State University production throw themselves into their roles with enthusiastic abandon.

Bowie State University Theatre’s Ride the Cyclone is a solid student production of a very strange show.

Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell’s musical, which premiered in Canada in 2008 and has since played venues including off-Broadway and Arena Stage, takes the form of a sort of unreality show. The host, a snarky mechanical fortune teller called The Amazing Karnak, can predict the moment of anyone’s death, including his own, which will happen in “a little over an hour.” Because he was set to “family fun novelty mode” in order to not frighten the fairgoers, he was never actually able to warn anyone of their fates, so he has set up the show as a final apology. To that end, he welcomes to limbo a high school chamber choir who have died in a roller-coaster disaster. The game he sets up is that one of them will win a return to life, but the rules are unclear and keep changing. This plot device sets up a series of songs defining the characters, in a pastiche of different musical styles.

The cast in the Bowie State production throw themselves into their roles with enthusiastic abandon.

Jacobie Thornton in ‘Ride the Cyclone.’ Photo by Joseph Edwards Photography.

As Karnak, Rodney Loper doesn’t sing, but strikes a note of calm amusement that contrasts sharply with his strange situation and surroundings — and he does a mean robot dance in his small booth.

First up among the “contestants” is Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Lauren Christin), “the most successful girl in town,” a self-centered over-achiever who sings a belting pop-diva number about how “What the World Needs” is people like her, not more losers like the others. She even goes so far as to say her BFF will have no use except as an organ donor — until she starts backpedaling madly when Karnak mentions that the winner will be chosen by unanimous vote. Christin’s snappy vocal delivery and humorous portrayal rise to the importance and self-importance of the character.

Next comes Noel Gruber (Carmari Ragins), “the most romantic boy in town” and the only gay, who worships Marlene Dietrich and French cinema, and secretly wants to be a tragically heartless harlot in post-war Paris. Ragins changes into a black dress and red sequined shawl (that seems to be a bit difficult to control) and struts through “Noel’s Lament” with feeling, like a cabaret chanteuse, clearly relishing every word.

The roller-coaster disaster scene in ‘Ride the Cyclone.’ Photo by Joseph Edwards Photography.

Noel is followed by Mischa Bachinski (Jacobie Thornton), “the angriest boy in town,” who wraps up his Rage and Passion in “the last bastion of pure strength and masculinity in society: self-aggrandizing commercialized hip-hop.” He sings “This Song Is Awesome,” a hymn to money, parties, and bling. Although Thornton might have benefitted from the autotune the song lauds, his fine and funny rap makes his performance stand out. Then, in the Ukrainian folk song “Talia,” he demonstrates his emotional and vocal range by morphing into a passionate lover wooing his beloved and vowing to “lay my masculinity at the altar of your maidenhood.” Throughout, his comic touches are a delight.

He is succeeded by Ricky Potts (Aiden Nash), who was handicapped and mute in life, but now can bust some impressive moves. He became “the most imaginative boy in town,” because his physical infirmities and the cruel indifference of his family made him seek consolation in his fantasy life. He sings about how he is a “Space Age Bachelor Man” making freaky love to the sexy cat women from the planet Zolar, while the rest of the cast sings a cat chorus behind him. Nash’s funky fun with the song is infectious.

The silliness is suddenly interrupted by a return to the creepy vibe, when Karnak calls up a mystery contestant who walks like an automaton and carries a headless doll. She is Jane Doe (Queen Harris), who has been alternately participating in numbers with and freaking out the others from the start. Jane Doe was the name given to her by the Coroner because her headless body was found in the wreckage of the rollercoaster, she cannot remember her past, and even Karnak cannot identify her. She sings the haunting — and fiendishly difficult — “Ballad of Jane Doe,” wondering who she is, why she had to die as she did, and “oh my soul, is it here, or rotting somewhere with my head?” Harris, who has been very effectively acting like a spooky doll throughout, shows off her operatic vocal range, all the more impressive because she hits the highest notes bent over at the waist. She adds an ethereal seriousness to the show.

Finally, the last contestant gets to sing — Constance Blackwood (Whitney Watson), “the nicest girl in town,” who has been forced to play second fiddle to and been insulted by Ocean for the entire show. In her song “Jawbreaker/SugarCloud,” she comes to realize that although she was secretly rebelling against her reputation as “the nice girl,” it took the horrible accident for her to realize how wonderful everything was and how much she loved her small town. Although Watson does not have the strongest voice in the cast, her monologue and interactions throughout with Ocean and the others are consistently fine.

Lauren Christin, Jacobie Thornton, Aiden Nash, Whitney Watson, Camari Ragins, and Queen Harris in ‘Ride the Cyclone.’ Photo by Joseph Edwards Photography.

Many other staging elements add up to make this a very satisfying production. Top of the list is the dancing — Kamri Johnson’s choreography is inventive and appropriate, and well executed with great enthusiasm by the cast. The lighting design team of Juan Juarez and Renata Taylor Smith created an impressively otherworldly space, with lights whizzing up a backdrop at the start and other effects that enhanced both the spooky vibe and the different musical styles. Adam Mendelson’s projections were good, especially the murderous rat, Virgil, who crept across the bottom of the stage toward Karnak in stylized streaks of light.

Music Director Daniella Ignacio coached the singers well, although some of the harmonies occasionally get off-kilter, and the backing tracks overwhelm the voices at times. And Director Elena Velasco keeps everything flowing smoothly and strikes a delicate balance between creepy and comic tones with touches of deeper emotion.

Although the ending of the show will probably not come as too much of a surprise, it would be unfair to spoil it here.

Ride the Cyclone has pretensions to being profound, but always undercuts them with humor and insists that not every story has a lesson. Mostly, it’s just a fun, sometimes scary rollercoaster ride. And perhaps the Amazing Karnak would say — isn’t that much like life itself?

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Ride the Cyclone plays from April 10 through 13, 2024, in Bowie State University Theatre’s Dionne Warwick Theatre, Bowie State University, 14000 Jerico Park Road
Bowie, MD. Purchase tickets ($16, general admission; $10, student) online

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Jennifer Georgia
Over the past [mumble] decades, Jennifer has acted, directed, costumed, designed sets, posters, and programs, and generally theatrically meddled on several continents. She has made a specialty of playing old bats — no, make that “mature, empowered women” — including Lady Bracknell in Importance of Being Earnest (twice); Mama Rose in Gypsy and the Wicked Stepmother in Cinderella at Montgomery Playhouse; Dolly in Hello, Dolly! and Carlotta in Follies in Switzerland; and Golde in Fiddler on the Roof and Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady in London. (Being the only American in a cast of 40, playing the woman who taught Henry Higgins to speak, was nerve-racking until a fellow actor said, “You know, it’s quite odd — when you’re on stage you haven’t an accent at all.”) She has no idea why she keeps getting cast as these imposing matriarchs; she is quite easygoing. Really. But Jennifer also indulges her lust for power by directing shows including You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Follies. Most recently, she directed, costumed, and designed and painted the set for Rockville Little Theatre’s She Stoops to Conquer, for which she won the WATCH Award for Outstanding Set Painting. In real life, she is a speechwriter and editor, and tutors learning-challenged kids for standardized tests and application essays.


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