'It has a really beautiful message': UT Theatre and Dance presents 'Ride The Cyclone'
“Ride the Cyclone is a really fast musical,” says director Jenny Lavery. “It is about this group of teenagers from Saskatchewan, Canada… and they are in a choir and they go to a competition and while they are at a Kiwanis competition, they also go to a nearby fairground. And within the first few minutes of the play, you learn that they get on the Cyclone roller coaster and when they get to the top, the coaster derails and they all plummet to their deaths. And so the show does deal with untimely death, but it is about them being in this sort of purgatory state. And so what we see is these kids living out their wildest fantasies and really fulfilling their untapped potential of who they could have been in life.”
The musical – which became a bit of a viral sensation last year, with Gen Z fans creating TikTok homages, wearing Ride the Cyclone cosplay and writing fan fiction based on it – is being produced this month by UT Theatre and Dance. It’s a musical that doesn’t relegate itself to one musical genre; as Lavery explains, its songs range from classical to glam rock to R&B to folk. The show features a cast that’s only a few years removed from their own teenage years, which makes it easy for them to connect with their fictional counterparts.
“I think – especially as we continue going on in the process – we just, each and every one of us, we start to find stuff within our character that we're like, that is me, that is us,” says Sereniti Lynn Patterson, who plays Constance Blackwood. “And of course, as a whole, I'm probably biased, but I think that this show demands to be seen because there is something for everybody and every single character you will watch and feel seen. And there might be something that you've never even voiced or never even felt the need to express from within yourself, and then all of a sudden you're seeing it on stage.”
“I think that's something that is so unique about this script and about this show, is that these characters are caricatures on the first pass of the script,” says Eli Mendenhall, who play Noel Gruber. “The first time you see it, these characters are… exaggerated, they're highlighted. But as the show goes on (and especially being in the show on this side of it), you see that those stories are caricatures and those stereotypes are stereotypes because those people exist and those experiences are not individual. Those experiences, a lot of the time, are universal. [Noel is] a closeted teenager and his distinct experience [of] being at that age and being in a small town, [he] deals a lot with the anger and the disgust and kind of the disdain for the life he currently has, which is kind of a general throughline with all of the kids. There is that discomfort with where they're at and what they could have been. But his character has just kind of sprinkled in a little bit extra layer, an extra queer sprinkle on top of that, [with] the light self-hatred that comes from it and the life you wanted to live. And I wish I could tell you so much more about the number!”
Patterson, like Mendenhall, has to fight against the instinct to give too much away about the show. “It's hard to even talk about what the show is about because I don't want to say anything that will reveal something,” she says. “Because it's like everything that happens is so unexpected. You would not think that this is going to be the next thing to happen. But those are like the best parts that you want to talk about.”
Lavery says that Ride the Cyclone, despite being a dark comedy that starts with the death of its lead characters, is ultimately uplifting and life-affirming. “The show asks us to confront the question – since we're all probably going to face death at some point – how do we want to live?” she says. “And we get to define that for ourselves. And so I feel like it's a really resonant show. And there's a lot of humor and a lot of very, very fun stuff that happens really fast. But then the show at some point drops in, and it has a really beautiful message.”
“I can say with full confidence that this is the [show] that I have the least guilt about inviting people to,” Mendenhall says. “I want everyone in the world to see theater. I want theater to be more accessible. I want theater to be seen. I want everyone who I know to come enjoy the theater. But sometimes if I'm in a historical drama that's about 2.5 hours long… maybe they're sitting there and they think do I want to come to this? I can say with full confidence that this show and the pace that it's at and the sheer entertainment value of the numbers and the variety of everything is something that is so easily digested. It's so entertaining. And that's one of the things that drew me to the script in the very first place, is just the high energy of everything.”
“My husband hates musical theater, and he loves this show,” says Lavery, to which Mendenhall and Patterson both agree, “exactly!”