Ride the Cyclone: A Musical, the story of six teenage choristers killed in a freak roller-coaster accident, has sped off on its own thrill-seeking joyride, full of stomach-turning twists and scream-inducing financial peril.
Interest in the production by Victoria-based Atomic Vaudeville has been picking up speed on a six-city western Canadian tour that stops at the Tom Hendry Warehouse for a 17-day run starting Thursday. What began in 2009 as a modest indie cabaret piece, earning it a fanatical hometown following, appears on the fast track to a New York City opening.
If Ride the Cyclone does follow the most recent Canadian theatre success story, The Drowsy Chaperone, to Broadway, two ex-Winnipeggers will play key roles in its development.
Former North Ender Morris Berchard acquired the production rights for Ride the Cyclone after seeing it at Toronto's 2010 Summerworks Festival (where it won the critic's choice and audience awards) and has been nurturing the musical by playwright Jacob Richmond and composer Brooke Maxwell ever since.
"It was sweet and smart and tragic, all at the same time," says Berchard, the 57-year-old entrepreneur-turned-Toronto impresario who has helped take such properties as Ragtime, Desire Under the Elms and The Little Dog Laughed to Broadway. "It was a good show but I felt it has the potential to be more than what it was."
Berchard helped support a couple of Toronto workshops, found larger markets for the piece and increased production values, investing in new sets and bumping up the musical accompaniment from one musician to four.
Another Toronto run a year later attracted a second backer, Kevin McCollum, the hot-shot Broadway producer behind Rent, Avenue Q and The Drowsy Chaperone -- the one-time stag-party entertainment that received five Tony Awards out of 13 nominations in 2006.
"He and Morris are mentoring us in a way," says co-director Britt Small, who was born in The Pas but grew up in Winnipeg before leaving to study directing at the University of Victoria.
Small and playwright Richmond founded Atomic Vaudeville eight years ago to specialize in irreverent comedy cabaret. In 2006, the latter penned Legoland, the first instalment of what was called the Uranium Teen Scream series, about a brother-sister act from Uranium, Sask. Ride the Cyclone is Part 2 of the story and focuses on a half-dozen chamber choir members who jump aboard a roller-coaster that derails and sends the teens hurtling to their deaths.
Karnak, the mechanical fortune-telling machine, gives each a last chance to sing a song as they look back on their life.
"It's a dark comedy and has elements of Rocky Horror (Show)," says Small, who is also Atomic's artistic producer. "The piece feels very contemporary and appeals to a younger audience. The struggles in it are easy to identify with."
Richmond and Small were both born on the Prairies and experienced what it's like to grow up feeling isolated in their small towns.
"The play is really about community," says the bilingual Small, who once performed in a school show at Cercle Molière. "These kids couldn't wait to get out of their town but came to realize all their experiences were there."
The current $500,000 tour started in Victoria in December and travels to Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton, as well as Saskatoon and Nanaimo after Winnipeg. Small doesn't see the show's road coming to an end any time soon, given the continued interest.
"I don't know if the show is right for Broadway but I think it will play in New York someday for sure," she says.
Berchard was interested in acting at an early age in Winnipeg, but his parents pressed him to go to university to study psychology and sociology. He ended up in Toronto, doing social work with the disabled, before moving into business and becoming co-owner of Canada's largest purveyor of assistance programs. He made millions when it was sold in 2005 and decided to combine his long-simmering passion for theatre with his business acumen.
Berchard has seen Ride the Cyclone a dozen times and will see it again in Winnipeg. A decision is imminent on whether more out-of-town tryouts are required with the knowledge that the average Broadway musical comes with a $6- to $20-million price tag.
Will Ride the Cyclone be the next great Canadian theatrical export?
"Oh, I hope so," says Berchard, over the telephone from the Caribbean. "I know it is a great piece and we feel it will do well. I know it deserves a larger life. I think the chances are very good that it will get to New York."
Ride the Cyclone: A Musical
óè Opens March 21, to April 6
óè Tickets: $20-$43.50 at www.mtc.mb.ca