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‘Ride the Cyclone’ raises questions about worthwhile lives

A group of teens cower on the left while a girl in black stands, looking to the sky, on the right. In the background, an older man sits inside a booth that says "Fortunes" and a sign says "Don't forget to ride the Cyclone."
Cast members rehearse for the upcoming opening of "Ride the Cyclone" at the Station Theatre in Urbana. From the left, Evan Arnold, Ciara Kelly and David Sommers play some of the teens competing against Jane Doe (Mary Jane Oken, right) for a chance to be returned to life by the fortunetelling machine Karnak, played by Kevin Paul Wickert (back).

URBANA — The Station Theatre in Urbana is preparing for the opening of its next musical: “Ride the Cyclone.”

In the show by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, a roller coaster accident kills five students, and a magical fortune-telling machine offers to bring one of them back to life. However, the teens must compete for that spot, and each sings a song about why they are the most deserving of returning to the world of the living instead of continuing on to the underworld.

The musical is especially poignant in the wake of the pandemic, music director Shawn Kimbrel said.

“Getting to spend some time and really think about ‘What does it mean to have a good life, even in the midst of all the chaos that is transition and that is turmoil and pandemic?’”  Kimbrel said. “We get to kind of unpack that together.”

Director Nathan Bohannon agreed, saying the show forces audience members to think about what they really value about life.

“You’re kind of asking your question of ‘What is a life well lived? Have I fully lived my life? Have I experienced the things that I would like to experience?’ And just kind of putting yourself in the shoes of those shoes of the characters,” Bohannon said.

Though “Ride the Cyclone” has been around since 2008 (with a limited run Off-Broadway in 2015), it really gained popularity, especially among young people, in recent years, thanks in part to social media. 

This popularity with young adult audiences is part of what Bohannon sees as the value in this show. 

“I think that it’s incredibly important, I think, in today’s society also to be telling stories that are geared towards, I think, our most influential demographic right now,” he said.

A spotlight illuminates the silhouette of a headless girl behind a curtain.
A spotlight illuminates the silhouette of a headless girl in “Ride the Cyclone.” The show opens on July 27. Owen Henderson / Illinois Newsroom

Cast member Mary Jane Oken, a 21-year-old senior studying acting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said she was drawn to the show by the way each of the teens explains their reasons to live. 

“What I love about this show is that each of the children’s numbers, it’s not what they were, but what they dreamt they could be,” Oken said. “And so it is outlandish and it is big. But it has so much heart behind it for these specific characters, and I think that each of our actors brings so much beauty to it.”

Because of the content in “Ride the Cyclone,” Bohannon said he knows that some of the themes could make audience members uncomfortable, but he wants them to be open to the questions the show poses about what makes life worthwhile.

“A lot of people can be so hyper-fixated on the things that make them uncomfortable or feel taboo, that they leave and they feel that as opposed to what was actually supposed to be said in it,” he said.

As an actor, Oken said she just hopes that audiences can take away the depth of emotions in the show. 

“In the show, there’s a line that’s something along the lines of the worst thing that someone can feel is indifference. And this show is so packed full of everything,” she said. “We’ve used the metaphor of a roller coaster a bunch of times. And just to get people to feel and to feel strongly, I think, is one of our main jobs.”

For Bohannon, the director, his aim is that audiences leave the theater with something to talk about. 

“A lot of times with a show, my goal is to not pick what lesson somebody is supposed to learn. And what I truly want, because it’s something I like experiencing, is that you leave entertainment, live entertainment, and that conversations continue,” he said. “As long as they are talking and just reflecting on how the show has affected them, that’s always my goal when it comes with shows. I don’t want people leaving silent.”

For some Illinois Public Media listeners, the show will include a familiar voice: WILL Morning Edition host Kimberly Schofield plays Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg, one of the teens. The cast also includes Kevin Paul Wickert (The Amazing Karnak), David Sommers (Mischa Bachinski), Evan Arnold (Noel Gruber), Ciara Kenny (Ricky Potts), Melissa Goldman (Constance Blackwood) and Mary Jane Oken (Jane Doe) with understudies Jace Jamison, Destiny Jording, Mikul Wyer, Aera Boateng and Max Deremiah.

“Ride the Cyclone” opens at the Station Theatre on July 27 and closes on August 13.

Picture of Owen Henderson

Owen Henderson

Owen Henderson covers arts and culture, as well as LGBTQ issues for Illinois Public Media News. He studied journalism, Spanish and theater at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has worked with Illinois Public Media in various capacities since 2021.

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