Having worked on a musical based on a Canadian classic, given a first class production in the Canadian theatrical community, I’ve spent a lot of time in the presence of Canadian musicals. Far more than England, Canada comes closest of any country in the world to contribute to the classic literature of the form. In part this has to do with electronic media (sanctioned and, I expect, bootlegged) making every major production globally available, which provides a kind of training heretofore unavailable; in part it has to do with a good number Canadian aspirants coming to New York for their training and returning to Canada, equipped with a tool kit not previously, easily accessible; and in part it has to do with a general sensibility about what the form should feel like that translates over the border. A North American sensibility, if you will. Combine that with a concerted push to explore Canadian content, stories and subjects unique to the country, and you have something bubbling Up There. That is being supported in a much more healthy, nurturing and increasingly craft-aware environment than what exists in London.
That said, Ride the Cyclone, currently at MCC Theater, is a pretty good example of the mid-development point of the art in Canada. It boasts an edgy, crackling talent in the voice of the writers (Jacob Richmond & Brooke Maxwell), an interesting feel, and thanks to director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell and her design team, a compelling look, with sharp staging and a cast to match. As to the show itself:
Here’s the premise (and despite the locale, this one isn’t particularly about Canadian subject matter, though there are some good naturedly self-deprecating jokes at Canada’s expense): At an amusement park, a super roller coaster ride has gone out of control and flung a number of near-adult teens (from the Saint Cassian High School Chamber Choir) to their collective death. But they emerge on The Other Side in literal spirit; and since each of them has trod an unfinished path, the Afterlife Rules, delineated by an interactive mechanical seer in a fortune telling machine, make allowances for one of them to go back and finish out his or her life.
Right there, of course, is the challenge. There can’t be much of a story once you’ve set that up. From this point on, it’s about each of the kids telling his or her own story of the life led before the accident, which almost renders the show a themed revue rather than a book musical, as each character takes his turn holding stage. There’s a certain narrative unity provided by the group goal of gestalt as a “main character”—each of them, theoretically, has the same objective. But unlike the characters of A Chorus Line (the show that defines and pretty much owns this approach), the agenda doesn’t stay quite so cleanly locked in for everybody, nor, despite the terrific sense of ensemble (particularly vocally), does it have an equivalent sense of gestalt community, with the result that dramatic tension sometimes gets lax in the service of a schematic structure. The parlor tricks of some truly excellent (especially for off-Broadway) production values often take the place of narrative tension. And they provide interest enough to keep audience relaxation at bay; they’re the shiny object when the show vamps. And the audience takes it in with fond enthusiasm.
Still, as I say, there’s something going on here, that strikes me as bigger than the show itself, making Ride the Cyclone worthwhile not only on its own terms, but as a developmental place marker. I don’t know that I can articulate it beyond referencing a cultural zeitgeist being explored by our musical theatre neighbors to the North, and I may feel the vibe only because I’ve probably been exposed to more Canuck tuners than any Yank alive, and I bring a “guest native” context to the table; but I think it’s only a matter of time before Canadian Musical becomes not only a category, but a subgenre to be reckoned with.