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Who'da thought death could be so much fun?

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Ride the Cyclone arrives in Winnipeg from the west, carried on a whirlwind of speculation about how high this indie musical can go up the theatrical food chain.

Broadway is the dream, as it is for every stage show with any ambition, and based on its RMTC Warehouse debut Thursday night, the Atomic Vaudeville creation is a legitimate contender.

The tale of the premature death of six teen choristers from small town Uranium, Sask., in a roller-coaster derailment teems with life: killer performances, fresh musical numbers, inventive staging and an endless supply of loopy black humour.

If the ride gets rough, it's due to a story by playwright/director Jacob Richmond that doesn't fit together as seamlessly as it should. Occasionally it bounces unsteadily over plot enhancements one suspects have been added since its 2009 debut.

We first meet the members of the St. Cassian Chamber Choir in some strange post-life limbo that houses the remnants of the Wonderville Amusement Park. Seemingly in charge of their future is a robotic fortune-teller, the Amazing Karnack (voiced by Carey Wass), who feels guilty about not telling the high schoolers about their imminent demise.

He offers these losers in the game of life a de-parting gift -- the chance to save one of them. Each gets to sing his or her story: think a macabre Canadian Idol. How the winner will be chosen is not really clear, but the rules change arbitrarily a couple of times anyway to patch over potential narrative glitches.

Each of the six saints, as they are dubbed in their town newspaper, gets a final musical say, backed by a four-piece band of red-eyed rats, whose mother rodent has just about gnawed through the electric cable that is Karnack's lifeline.

First to perform is wholesome high-achiever Ocean (Rielle Braid), who wants the prize the most. This Miss Perfect brings to mind Glee's Rachel Berry in her unrelenting drive to succeed and obvious talent. Ocean's number naturally climaxes with her on top of a human pyramid of her competitors, crowing, "What a rush."

The young people talk a lot about their home town, where Diversity Day typically involved a brief parade consisting of cherry-cheeked Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), the only gay man in Uranium, Sask., and an adorable Chinese couple who were really Korean. Noel's fantasy is have been born in a different place and time, preferably as a sleazy prostitute in black lingerie and torn stockings in post-Second World War France. Wardell's sensational, steamy performance gives Ride the Cyclone its first thrill and convincing evidence that it's more than an over-striving fringe festival hit.

Misha (Jameson Matthew Parker, who appeared on the same stage in last season's Red) is an immigrant from Ukraine whose dubious claim to fame is that he is the best rapper in northwestern Saskatchewan. He has an Internet girlfriend back home whom he desperately want to join. His rap number ends impressively with him interacting with film of her before he joins her onscreen.

Ricky Potts (Elliott Loran) suffered from spina bifida, but in the afterlife, he throws away his crutches and morphs into a Ziggy Stardust-like glam-rocker in a metallic lime green cape while belting out Space Age Bachelor Man to a collection of adoring cats.

Another highlight is the appearance at centre stage of the creepy Jane Doe (Sarah Jane Pelzer), the mystery girl who has been aimlessly wandering around wearing black contacts while snuggling a headless doll that mirrors her decapitation in the accident. No one knows who she is and Jane is worried about having no one to mourn her at her funeral. Pelzer unleashes her divine soprano voice on the heartbreaking Who I Am.

Last but not least to come forward is Constance Blackwood (Kelly Hudson), the town's nicest girl, who is somewhat embarrassed that she is content to have lived and died in Uranium. Hudson is ever so poignant, singing about her little life being like a jawbreaker: "It sucks and sucks and sucks some more."

There is an appealing raw energy and originality that permeate this 95-minute ride. Director Richmond and his artistic team miss no opportunity to up the entertainment value. Every production number is enhanced with Treena Stubel's rousing choreography and James Insell's pleasing carnival set. Brooke Maxwell's songs and arrangements are all over the musical map but each contains a contemporary urgency.

Like the six teens, Ride the Cyclone is hoping for another life, one as an international touring production that has New York City on its travel plans. A look into Karnack's crystal ball reveals a promising future off-Broadway.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 G5

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