Eerie vocals float through the theater, describing the endless cycle of birth and death, when a single spotlight falls on a headless baby doll on stage. So begins a performance that includes a cat orgy in space, a tribute to the war in Ukraine, and a drag performance by a teenage Taco Bell employee that offended some members of the audience so much they walked out. It culminates in a surprisingly emotional rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung to a deep-fried Hello Kitty cupcake.
Those were just some of the highlights from the California premiere of the musical “Ride the Cyclone,” which debuted at the Chance Theatre in Anaheim on Jan. 27. Following three sold-out weekends in a row, it was announced Friday that the show’s run has been extended through March 5.
Some patrons in the audience at the premiere had traveled from San Francisco and Arizona after hearing the musical’s songs on Tiktok, where they’ve garnered almost 90 million views. People dressed up as their favorite characters from the show, which premiered in 2008 in Canada, bringing to mind late-night showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
“I got into it through Tiktok,” said Marci Wilson, a student at Laguna College of Art and Design. “There was this obscure, out-of-context audio of the song ‘Space Age Bachelor Man.’”
Ella Lewis, another student from Laguna who made the 30+ mile drive with Wilson, discovered the show on Youtube. Like many of their fellow audience members, Wilson and Lewis came in full cosplay; Lewis wore a long velvet gown inspired by one of her favorite characters in the show, Jane Doe.
“I found this $8 dress at a thrift store; it’s like my fancy ballgown,” Lewis said. “I kind of wanted to go for a Jane Doe-esque vibe, so I got the choker to look like my head was off.”
“Ride the Cyclone” is a show about death — the death of six children in a roller coaster accident. They’re all members of a choir on a trip to the fair in their small town in Canada, where they died in a freak accident. (Jane Doe was beheaded.) They regain consciousness in the presence of carnival fortune-telling Machine The Amazing Karnak. He informs them of their untimely passing and explains that he will grant one member of the group reincarnation, and so they must all argue their cases. Characters sing about their lives, and the stories they tell get wonderfully weird.
First up to the plate is Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Hayley Wolff), singing “What the World Needs is People Like Me.” Karnak, who provides occasional omniscient exposition, describes her as the smartest girl in town whose catch phrase is “Democracy rocks!” Her defense is social Darwinism: Only she can succeed and escape their tiny town. About her best friend, Constance Blackwood (Rose Pell), Ocean rhetorically asks, “Do we really need another organ donor?” To Ricky Potts (Jaylen Baham), who is chronically ill and disabled, she sings, “What’s he gonna do, solve a Rubix cube? How long does he got if we feed him through a tube?”
When a wailing high note closes out her narcissistic rant, Karnak delivers the twist. Who lives will be determined by a unanimous vote. Ocean no longer believes that democracy rocks. She pleads with her peers for a second chance, only to be called “little orphan asshole.” The power dynamics have been overthrown, and now the rest of the diverse cast has the opportunity to provide nuanced explorations of trauma, sexuality, disability, and stereotypes. Noel Gruber (Wyatt Hatfield) is the only queer person in his rural town. His number is decadent, dramatic, and performed in full drag.
“In this show I get to embrace all the feminine, gay parts of me and be celebrated for that,” Hatfield said in an interview. “Every night after I’m done with my song, I fall off the chair, I reach out and hear the applause. It’s just so liberating. Queer joy, getting to be gay and be celebrated for that, even if people walk out like they did tonight.”
Another number follows Mischa Bachinski (Jared Machado), a refugee from Ukraine. The musical was written in 2008, but in a departure from the pre-war source material, the production projects video of bombings in Kyiv.
“It was something that was super important to the entire creative team,” Machado said. “It’s important that we pay attention, and direct attention to what’s going on in Ukraine right now. There’s no way we couldn’t.”
Perhaps the most notable thing about “Ride the Cyclone” is that its whimsically risqué plot and social media popularity are getting young people into the theater. Gen Z’ers both liked the videos on TikTok and drove hours to see the show live. To quote Mischa Bachinski, “Don’t put me in a box, I’ll always break out of that shit, Hunty.”
Prices for the show at the Chance Theater range from $46 on weekdays to $49 on weekends. People can also enter a lottery on the theater’s website for $10 tickets.