Fasten Your Seatbelt: The History of Ride the Cyclone

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Guest post by Tracy Hyland, ACT Theatre Education and Engagement Manager

The thrill of Ride the Cyclone onstage is equally matched by the story of how this new musical came to be. From a small fringe theater production in Victoria, BC to a recent Off-Broadway run, Cyclone has enjoyed several iterations across the continent before experiencing its West Coast premiere in Seattle.

The beginnings of Cyclone date back to 2001. When musician Brooke Maxwell’s early ambition for jazz music morphed into an interest in Victoria’s local theater scene, he met Jacob Richmond (Founding Director of Atomic Vaudeville) and began writing music for its cabarets. As Maxwell remembers, “After about 30 tunes for these cabarets, Jacob decided he wanted to write a full-on musical [together], and we began Ride the Cyclone.”

A writing session in 2008 led to a workshop in the basement of a Ukrainian church. “It was such a rush hearing those songs for the first time, gathered around the piano!” Maxwell recalls. The first staged production occurred the following year at Metro Studios in Victoria. “Every level of its development was new to me at the time,” Maxwell admits. “I knew nothing. I remember my first tech rehearsal, trying to understand the protocol for speaking, wondering if I’d ever get to be in a theater that would have more than two headset mics, and if I’d ever get to wear one?”

Audience buzz for Cyclone inspired a remount shortly after the first run. Actor Kholby Wardell*, who has played the character of Noel since the first workshop, remembers that in this remounted version, Richmond and Maxwell added lots of new material, stretching the show to two full acts. Although Ride the Cyclone has since been pared down again to one act, Wardell notes, “some of the scenes and ideas of the piece have roots in that longer version…it was definitely a fruitful experiment.”

After a few more performances in Western Canada in smaller venues, Ride the Cyclone made its way to Toronto in 2010, where it received rave reviews, sparking a Canadian tour in 2011 and again in 2013. “In every city or town,” Wardell says, “there have been many repeat audience members, some coming to the show as many as fourteen times in one run. Cyclonics, or Uraniacs as they used to be known, feel an intrinsic connection to Cyclone. It has a loving and enthusiastic base. That’s been a wonderful thing to be a part of for so long.”

While the show was in Edmonton, Alberta, Tony® Award-winning producer Kevin McCollum encouraged Rachel Rockwell to see it. Rockwell admits, “I was so surprised by the show’s audacity, wit and humanity. I was very excited when [McCollum] asked me to direct and choreograph the first US production.”

For the next two years, Cyclone was workshopped at Chicago Shakespeare Theater with a new artistic team. ”Starting out with a small theater company… where three people did everything, and moving to an incredibly supported environment like Chicago Shakes was mind-blowing,” Maxwell admits. “The creative support was amazing as we worked to further develop the storyline and characters into the narrative arc. An incredible experience.”

When asked what it was like to step in as the new director and choreographer, Rockwell says, “I feel tremendous respect for and gratitude to Atomic Vaudeville…They laid such a beautiful foundation for the show. Joining a pre-existing collaboration is always a bit like marrying into a family and bringing your own recipes to the family Thanksgiving. You just hope there’s room at the table for everyone and that they decide that your pie is a welcome addition to the buffet! Brooke and Jacob have always been fun, generous collaborators. The three of us have wildly different ways of approaching the work, which I think ultimately makes the show stronger.”

Rachel “was an amazing shepherd,” Wardell notes. “She took over from the superlative work Britt Small (co-director of the original production) had done, and then guided it through many changes.” With the support of McCullom, Rockwell and her creative team, Wardell believes that Richmond and Maxwell were able to explore the emotional heart of Ride the Cyclone “with more ease, clarity, simplicity and beauty during their time in Chicago.”

“I have a wonderful team of collaborators,” Rockwell points out. “Mike Tutaj, Theresa Hamm, Greg Hofmann, Doug Peck, Rick Boynton and Ericka Mac….I have shared this journey from the beginning. I think we challenge each other and have been able to hone a unique voice and style for the production. A very important aspect of my job is keeping an eye on scale. This show is very delicate, and it is best when it doesn’t stray too far from its origins in the Ukrainian church basement where it began. I love ‘slick,’ but not for this piece.”

Under Rockwell’s direction, the show has enjoyed a run at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (2015) and the MCC Theatre in NYC (2016). For Seattle audiences, it’s exciting to note that Maxwell and Richmond have recently collaborated on more new material with Rockwell. “There is a lot that is new for the Seattle production!” Rockwell exclaims. “There has been a good deal of work on the book and I think we have three, maybe four new songs, including a new opening to the show. The writers and I are really excited to premiere this new version in a great theater town like Seattle, which is just a stone’s throw from their creative home in Victoria.”

“We think of Seattle as Victoria-South!” Brooke laughs. “It’s a West Coast show, born and raised, and I have a feeling that people here will really connect with it.”
Enjoy the ride!

Click here to get your tickets to Ride the Cyclone, our annual co-production with and presented at ACT – A Contemporary Theatre.

*Kholby Wardell’s interview originally appeared in Canadian Theatre Review, Vol. 171. (2017)

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