By Lynn Venhaus

A little bit of horror and a lot of hilarity ensues in the madcap cult musical “Ride the Cyclone: The Musical,” now playing in a festive amusement park-like atmosphere at the Tower Grove Abbey.

For those unfamiliar with this musical comedy by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, six peppy performers portray teenagers from a Canadian parochial school chamber choir whose lives are cut short in a freak accident aboard a roller coaster.

And that’s not the only thing freaky in this zany production that has a distinct viewpoint about the universal mysteries of life, death, and the afterlife – mostly funny, but sometimes sad, and surprisingly touching.

After they wind up in Limbo, a mechanical fortune teller, The Amazing Karnak, offers the dead kids a chance to return to life – but only one will be selected in this strange game of survivor. So, each tells their stories of living in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, and of their experiences at St. Cassian High School.

Five are kooky variations of John Hughes-like characters while the sixth, Jane Doe, was decapitated in the calamity and her body wasn’t claimed. Dawn Schmid plays the mysterious and ethereal outlier, showcasing her elegant voice in the opening number “Dream of Life” and later, “The Ballad of Jane Doe,” in which she talks about not knowing her identity.

The other five try to set themselves apart, and they accomplish that. This is a merry band of accomplished performers who make each character their own.

Photo by John Lamb

Eileen Engel, channeling Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick character in “Election,” is the classic annoying over-achiever who is so certain she should be spared – and is snide in her comments to others, her entitlement front and center. Her name Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg. Seriously. Her catch phrase is “Democracy rocks!”

Her number, “What the World Needs,” brings out her personality traits and she leads the ensemble on “Every Story’s Got a Lesson.”

Riley Dunn may be having the most fun on stage as a very angry adopted young man, Mischa Bachinski, from the Ukraine. He’s an aspiring rapper, so of course, he must show off in “This Song is Awesome” and then display his softer side when recalling his internet girlfriend “Talia.”

In death, Stephen Henley’s earnest Ricky Potts, mute with a degenerative disease — catch phrase “Level Up!” — apparently has a new lease on life, as he is no longer disabled, and thrives with his discovered abilities. Part mensch, and pure team player with an overactive imagination, he sure has fun in his fantasies with “Space Age Bachelor Man.”

Grace Langford is eager-to-please Constance Blackwood, who is upset that she’s always labeled “nice,” has a love-hate relationship with her hometown and has a secret to later share. (And it’s a doozy). She belts out “Jawbreaker” and then after she changes her mind, “Sugarcloud.”

Mike Hodges has done double-duty as choreography and performer, and he gets to be outrageous as a gay kid in a small town who has never encountered anyone in his tribe. His saucy “Noel’s Lament” is the bawdiest number.

 “The Other Side” is a spirited introduction.

The choreography is a delightful mix of “High School Musical,” “Cabaret,” “La Cage aux Folles,” even shades of “Cats,” and contemporary music videos.

The kids take a break from their “Look at Me!”attitudes to sing the tender “The New Birthday Song” to Jane Doe.

Engel also does double duty, as costume designer, with looks that run the gamut from the drab Catholic school jumpers to Hodges’ more risqué outfits

A well-known local actor voices Karnak, and his narration is superb. The program doesn’t reveal who he is, so I’ll keep that quiet until we’re allowed to share, no spoiler from me.

The musical was first performed in 2008, but did not have its American premiere, in Chicago, until 2015, and then mounted off-Broadway the next year.

It has developed a cult following, somewhat like “The Rocky Horror Show,” and audience members came from several different states, whooping it up, their enthusiasm contagious.

This is a fast-paced show – 90 minutes without an intermission. While it flows smoothly, a tremendous amount of difficulty is apparent because of the level of stage craft, but it’s all handled with aplomb.

Photo by John Lamb

Director Justin Been has cleverly staged the intricate movements, with timing a crucial element, and skillfully coordinated the moving parts – as there are many cues for sound, lights, and special effects. Many video projections are used, too, snapshots from their lives.

Longtime tech creative Tyler Duenow has masterfully taken the lighting design to new heights — a terrific mix of spooky, strange and status quo, while sound designer Jacob Baxley’s crisp work is noteworthy too.

Scenic designer Josh Smith has appointed the small space well, with the Karnak a creepy standout (not confined to a glass case like in “Big.”)

The witty script leans towards the sarcastic, with some laugh-out-loud observations, Been, along with his cast, has enlivened the show with up-to-date references (script allows it)

The band is onstage and appears to be having fun. Led by music director Leah Schultz, who also plays piano and recorder, musicians include Michaela Kuba on bass and cello, Adam Rugo on guitar and Joe Winters on percussion.

A macabre and mirthful show might not evoke the spirit of Christmas, but it sure spread joy to the world in Tower Grove Abbey – a cheering audience, exuberant cast and top-of-their game creative team made it a pleasant holiday-time diversion.

Stray Dog Theatre presents “Ride the Cyclone: The Musical” Thursdays through Saturdays December 1-17, with additional performances on Sunday, Dec. 11, and Wednesday, Dec. 14, both at 8 p.m., at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee, in Tower Grove East. This show contains mature language, smoke effects, strobing lights, and sudden loud noises. Masks are not required but encouraged. For more information or for tickets, visit www.straydogtheatre.org.

Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
Passion drives the characters and the R-S Theatrics production of a miraculous
little musical that has something to say. The title “A Man of No Importance” is
a misnomer, for Alfie Byrne is a remarkable human being whose significance is mirrored
in the faces of his fellow Dubliners.
In a blockbuster musical theater climate that regularly serves feel-good fluff and
spectacle, Broadway heavyweights Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty wrote pensive
Irish-inflected music and lyrics and four-time Tony-winning playwright Terrence
McNally penned the book for a heartfelt rumination on friendship, acceptance,
creative expression and social mores for a 2002 Lincoln Center production.
This unconventional off-Broadway diamond in the rough feels like a pot o’ gold
discovery today. McNally, whose bold work on gay themes has been heralded
worldwide, adapted the 1994 film “A Man of No Importance” starring Albert
Finney into an introspective work of substance, a fanfare for the common man with
wry humor and touching moments.

Unlike the grand ambition of their masterpiece “Ragtime,” McNally,
and Ahrens and Flaherty, through their songs, give meaning to modest people and
their small-scale dreams and desires. And it’s in a specific setting – a working-class
Dublin parish in 1964, with quaint characters, during a time of innocence as
the world is changing.
With grace and laser-focus, director Christina Rios has created a cozy setting
that feels like the earnest characters are in your living room, that they are
part of your daily life and live next door.

“A Man of No Importance” at R-S TheatricsThe snug space gives the top-flight cast an opportunity to
gel like a community – the way an amateur theater group does, how church parishes
do, and why co-workers, pub mates and newcomers connect. You feel their moods,
temperaments.

Good-natured Alfie Byrne (Mark Kelley) is a bus conductor
by day, with a poet’s soul, and a creative force at night. Inspired by his
mentor Oscar Wilde, he fervently directs the St. Imelda’s Players, coming alive
fired up by art.

While kind and outgoing, he is also forlorn, a square peg
trying to fit into a round hole, as Alfie is a closeted homosexual when it was
still a crime in Ireland.

At home, he lives with his surly sister Lily (Stephanie
Merritt), who finds his hobbies peculiar, particularly his penchant for making
foreign dishes for dinner distasteful – Bolognese sauce, curry? She has decided
not to marry until he does, which adds to her exasperation. Merritt’s strong vocal
prowess is displayed in “The Burden of Life” and the touching ‘Tell Me Why” in
second act.

Stephanie Merritt and Michael B. PerkinsHer blustery steady beau, Carney (Michael B. Perkins), is the neighborhood butcher. Quite a ham on stage, he leads his enthusiastic castmates in the upbeat “Going Up!” – a fun song any thespian can identify with, setting the stage for the rehearsals to come.

But in an ugly character development, Carney also thinks it
is his moral duty to make the local church aware they are putting on “pornography,”
for he is appalled at Alfie’s choice for the next production – Wilde’s controversial
“Salome,” based on the tragic Biblical characters.

Miffed that he’s not the lead, Carney riles up the ladies’
sodality while the rest of the troupe are trying to find a way to costume the
seven veils and paint a realistic dummy head of John the Baptist. He wraps his
thoughts around it in “Confusing Times.”

Perkins has several stand-out songs, including the dandy comical
duet with Merritt, expressing outrage about Alfie’s proclivities “Books.”

Perkins also doubles as the flamboyant Wilde in dream
sequences, handling both with aplomb.
While Father Kenny (Dustin Allison) is shutting down the program, the church
hall teems with cast members, and we are introduced to a quirky assortment of folks
in this interesting patchwork quilt of a show.

Alfie loves these people. They’re home. They’re his “other”
family.

Lindy Elliott as AdeleThere are the housewife diva-wannabes who flutter about him
– Miss Crowe (Kay Love), Mrs. Curtin (Nancy Nigh), Mrs. Grace (Jodi Stockton)
and Mrs. Patrick (Jennifer Theby-Quinn). Besides Carney, on the men’s side is
widowed Baldy (Kent Coffel), Rasher Flynn (Marshall Jennings) and Ernie Lally
(Dustin Allison).

All gifted singers, they are outstanding in the ensemble
numbers “A Man of No Importance,” “Our Father,” “Art” and several reprises. Nigh
has fun carrying out Naomi Walsby’s tap choreography in “First Rehearsal.”

Alfie has a secret crush on his co-worker, bus driver Robbie Fay (Kellen Green). He’d like to cast him as John the Baptist but Robbie’s not convinced. A lovely young woman, Adele Rice (Lindy Elliott), is new to town, and Alfie’s inspiration to tackle his mentor’s masterwork. Could she be his “Salome”?

Elliott, very impressive in this key role, sweetly sings a
reprise of “Love Who You Love,” and she and Kelley have a touching song
together, “Princess.”

Kellen Green as Robbie

As the handsome, conflicted Robbie, Green is terrific, trying
to find his way — and has a secret too. He robustly delivers “The Streets of
Dublin,” one of the show’s best numbers, and has a moving duet, “Confession” with
Kelley. He shows his prowess on the violin and in a reprise of “Love Who You
Love” as well.

Another highlight is Kent Coffel’s tender rendition of “The
Cuddles Mary Gave,” as the character Baldy mourns his late wife.

Anchoring the whole shebang is Mark Kelley, a revelation as
Alfie. He understands this sensitive soul and his pain. He imbues Alfie with so
much conviction that his bittersweet songs, “Love’s Never Lost” and “Love Who
You Love” are affecting and the triumph of “Welcome to the World” is
well-earned.

As the dialect coach, sound designer and fight
choreographer in addition to the lead, Kelley has galvanized this production.
The fight is realistic thanks to assistant fight choreographer Rhiannon Skye
Creighton and Perkins as fight captain.

The Irish accents are spot-on and never waiver – kudos to
the cast’s commitment on getting it right. It makes a difference setting the
proper tone, and the lived-in quality of the production is noteworthy.

Kent Coffel and Mark KelleyThe orchestra is very much a key part of the production,
and not just because conductor Curtis Moeller doubles as a character, Carson.
The cast interacts with them and vice versa, and they excel at giving an authentic
Celtic sound to the score. Moeller is on keyboard, with Benjamin Ash on bass,
Twinda Murry and Hanna Kroeger playing violins, Emily T. Lane on cello, Adam
Rugo on guitars and Marc Strathman on flutes. They achieve a lush sound that piquantly
flavors the show.

Amanda Brasher’s costume designs are a treat. She nailed the characters perfectly, from vintage frocks to the nubby knit sweaters to the assortment of hats defining personalities. Stockton’s Mrs. Grace wears a stunning ballet-slipper pink lace two-piece suit straight out of Jackie Kennedy’s closet.

The musical is a slow simmer but worth the investment as the sympathetic characters ripen. While the story spotlights a different time in another country, it illustrates the universal social awakening that “Love is Love is Love.” And being accepted for who you are is a worthy topic no matter when or where.

R-S Theatrics’ “A Man of No Importance” is to be admired
for its wholehearted mounting of a little-known show, illuminated by a talented
group of performers who feel like family at the finale.

Jodi StocktonR-S Theatrics presents “A Man of No Importance”
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 7 p.m., Aug. 9 – 25, at the Marcelle
Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive in Grand Center For more information or for
tickets, visit www.r-stheatrics.com
or call 314-252-8812.