Ride the Cyclone: A Fantastic Journey

- Reviews

by: Lola Furbee

Ride the Cyclone recently donned the stage of Meiley-Swallow Theatre on the campus of North Central College. Directed by Claribel Gross and Jeremy Ohringer, with music direction by Kevin Disch, this musical served as the second NCC Theatre Department production of the semester. Ride the Cyclone tells the tale of six students from the St. Cassian High School chamber choir as their lives are cut short after riding a faulty roller coaster. When they awake, the teenagers are greeted by an animatronic fortune teller, inciting them each to tell a story as to why they deserve to win the grand prize: a chance to be brought back to life. 

With the book, music, and lyrics of Ride the Cyclone – created by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell – the North Central College Theatre Department executed this musical in a way that stays true to the original, while also adding their own unique spins that managed to completely elevate the piece. Stage managed by Giana Salerno with assistant stage manager Madalynn Travnicek, every second of this production met its mark. The intricacy of the set design alone placed you in the world of Cyclone immediately once you set foot in the theater – whether it was due to the massive clown backdrop, The Amazing Karnak’s box, or the literal frame of a roller coaster that seems to have gone off its rails. 

All of the other aspects of North Central College’s Ride the Cyclone worked incredibly together to really sell the show. The costume design by Taylor Dobes, and the hair/makeup design by Skyler Schoonaert, were created for each of the cast members and really highlighted the personalities of each of these unique characters. The disparate choreography for each song also had a similar effect, spotlighting the different natures of each character and the various topics they were singing about. The prop design by Kayla Lockhart was just as beneficial to the characterization of everyone on stage and, at times, it really showed the contrasts between their personas. 

The lighting design by Ruby Lowe and Zoie Morack, and the sound design by Andrew Butler and Ryan Sendef, were two spectacular aspects to go along with these distinctions between each character and their songs. The lighting design was truly stellar, fluctuating with each moment of the show to emphasize the emotions of the scene. In a similar way, the sound design was used to enunciate the more humorous or dramatic moments during the show, clearly working hand in hand with the lighting designers to time each second perfectly. 

And you can’t appreciate all the design work that went into the show without mentioning one of the most crucial set pieces: the elevator. The elevator was utilized during one of the final, and most important, scenes of the show. Designed by Brian Redfern, the elevator had to be built entirely from scratch for this specific production of Ride the Cyclone. Its mechanisms were very flush, so much so that you would have no idea that the piece wasn’t always a part of the theater in the first place. The elevator was used during the pinnacle moment of the plotline, and it’s questionable if the significance of the scene would have been the same without it. 

The cast of Ride the Cyclone performing “The Uranium Suite”

North Central College’s Ride the Cyclone featured an uber-talented cast, consisting of Marina “Jo” Jòkanović as The Amazing Karnak, Alejandra Mia Rivera Morales as Ocean, Lucas Fawer as Noel, Spencer Avery as Mischa, Tariq Griffin as Ricky, Clare Salazar as Jane Doe, and Nevaeh Mansur as Constance. Each actor was able to masterfully fit the “stereotypical” mold of their characters – whether it was Rivera’s eagerness as an over-achieving choir student or Mansur’s ability to nail the secretive essence of a girl who is often overlooked. You frequently forget that this ensemble only comprised seven people, as they all worked together in such a formidable way. The stage was filled with such a gifted presence of outstanding vocals and great acting. Griffin’s sudden confidence when his character finally gets the chance to speak his mind instantly enthralled audiences, and you couldn’t help but be amazed by Avery’s ability to go from rapping in autotune to singing a woeful tale of his long-distance love. The show simply could not have been as staggering without each and every one of the actors who was cast. 

At first glance, Ride the Cyclone comes off as a lighthearted musical about a group of clichés. When you take a moment to think about it, though, this show quickly reveals itself to be so much more than that. Masked by all its catchy songs and humorous dances, Cyclone is heartbreaking. You can’t help but feel for these six characters whose lives ended too soon, and you leave the theater wishing they all had more time. But Cyclone is also heartening. It’s hopeful and inspiring, and it reminds you that you should never take life for granted. There is so much to be said about how easy it is to go through the motions of life without taking a moment to appreciate what’s around you. North Central College’s Ride the Cyclone reminds audiences that life certainly can be wonderful, you just have to take a look around. 

The cast of Ride the Cyclone

I was given the extraordinary opportunity to sit in on the rehearsal process for Ride the Cyclone. I originally planned on watching a run-through, maybe asking some of the cast and crew members a question or two, then watching their opening night performance to see how far the show had come. However, my intentions immediately flew out the window after I got the chance to experience this production for the first time. Regardless of the lack of costumes, lighting, and even an entirely built set, what I witnessed on that stage during my first sit-in was magical. I couldn’t help but to be captivated by the world of North Central College’s Ride the Cyclone and I became determined to learn more. I had the chance to speak with a few of the cast members and creative team who worked on this production, specifically to dive deeper into some of the nuances on which I became particularly fixated.

The directorial process of this show initially stood out to me, as there were not one, but two North Central College faculty members serving as directors. Jeremy Ohringer and Claribel Gross worked together to co-direct this show, and I got the chance to speak with the latter, not only about her experience working with another director on the same show, but also regarding her directorial debut at North Central College. 

Ride the Cyclone directors Claribel Gross (L) and Jeremy Ohringer (R)

Gross was quick to assure me that her first experience directing for North Central College was nothing but great. She emphasized how the support system she had for this production, including the talented group of actors, the production manager, Brian Redford, and the two assistant directors, Nathan Thomas Dittemore and Jake Keller, made her job easier. To go along with this experience, Gross expressed her appreciation of being paired to work with Ohringer specifically, especially as this was her first time ever directing a musical. Luckily, Gross and Ohringer have had the chance to work together on productions before, meaning they understood how the other worked and were familiar with each other’s techniques. Gross concluded that her “anti-perfectionism” paired perfectly with Ohringer’s “perfectionism” to create such a successful production of Ride the Cyclone. 

Marina “Jo” Jòkanović, who played The Amazing Karnak, was also generous enough to give her input on the time spent working on Karnak’s mannerisms, as well as his voice. When you have Jòkanović acting as an automated fortune teller for the entirety of the musical, you might think that the performance could become stilted, as she is placed in a limiting situation. She is in a stationary box, having to maintain perfect posture, while also disclosing lengthy monologues to serve as the sort of “narrator” for the show. Jòkanović’s performance, however, is anything but stilted. I was instantly captivated by the way she was able to maneuver the upper half of her body; I truly believed that she was a machine. Her arms moved in a smooth yet artificial manner, and the voice she used gave a polished yet enticing feel.

Jòkanović explained to me that she vividly remembered seeing a specific video of Walt Disney showing off his first ever animatronic. She explained how the animatronic had these “very specific, yet fluid movements” from which she drew inspiration for her version of Karnak. Regarding the voice of her character, Jòkanović reassured me that they went through a lot of trial and error. She and the creatives cycled through a multitude of different accents, including Eastern European, Italian, and French. However, when they finally reached the British accent, they found that it was “evil, but sophisticated at the same time,” and Jòkanović knew it was the perfect fit. 

Noel, who was played by Lucas Fawer, also had peculiar distinctions about his character that I was set on asking him about. The character of Noel is definitely special in and of itself. Noel is the only gay student in his small, rural town, and as a gay man himself, Fawer was intent on portraying this character in the most authentic way possible. Fawer expressed his initial difficulty in finding the way to act as Noel, explaining how he first created a sort of “character” for Noel that began to feel cartoonish and stereotypical. Fawer began to stray away from that portrayal and instead settled on a version of Noel that was simply just a version of himself. He was able to find a sort of balance between the character of Noel and his own personality that allowed him to draw from his own experiences and connect to Noel as a person. 

Lucas Fawer and cast performing “Noel’s Lament”

Something in which I was especially interested was Fawer’s take on the underwritten lyrics near the end of his song, “Noel’s Lament.” During the number, the theater was washed with red hues, as Fawer danced alluringly, in addition to singing incredibly high notes, which sounded truly ethereal. The passion behind the song is regarding Noel’s dreams of becoming a harlot in post-war France. Fawer explained how the dichotomy of the song is very strange, as you can see Noel “flourishing and in his happiest state,” while the other characters in the background are all chanting the horrible realities of the life of which he is dreaming. Fawer feels that the things Noel is idolizing throughout his lament have become “glorified and romanticized” to him, because it is something he has never really had. Fawer’s thoughts were able to remind me of how fitting it is that Noel is “the most romantic boy in town,” and it just goes to show the understanding of Noel that Fawer was able to find throughout the process. 

Clare Salazar, who played the famed Jane Doe, had to deploy specific mannerisms to her body movements about which I was curious, as well. Salazar had a peculiar way of striding that I couldn’t help but be enthralled by whenever she moved around the set. If you didn’t get the chance to see Ride the Cyclone and you’re unfamiliar with the show, Jane Doe is an unidentified student who lost her head during The Cyclone accident. Whether it was due to the ominous echo her mic was given, the chilling doll makeup she was decked in, or the haunting look you could just see in her eyes, Salazar played Jane Doe in such a harrowing, yet artful, way. She walked through the show in a state of uncertainty, which immediately becomes clear when Jane Doe is properly introduced. 

Clare Salazar and cast performing “The Ballad of Jane Doe”

Salazar described her main motivation behind Jane’s movements as if “all of her atoms were split up, then she got compacted back together.” She wanted Jane to appear similar to a “baby deer,” in the sense that she didn’t have the literal years of experience that all of the other students had, so she was simply “finding what feels best to her.” Salazar also illustrated to me the idea that if Jane was walking to one spot on the stage, each part of her body was going to move at a slightly different pace, which I found to be a perfectly accurate description of what I saw in that theater during each performance. 

If it has not been clear already, this production of Ride the Cyclone truly affected me in a way I never thought it would. Despite being a musical theater enthusiast, I was never really familiar with the plot or songs of Ride the Cyclone, though it is safe to say that I am definitely a huge fan now. I went into that first rehearsal completely blind, and I left feeling like a more well-rounded person because of it. North Central College Theatre Department’s Ride the Cyclone has reminded me of all the little joys in life, and I can be nothing but grateful for it. 

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