Theater

Two Musicals Celebrate Life and Confront Death

by

If I tell you, “Six teenagers died in a roller-coaster accident, and somebody thought this was a good idea for a musical,” your reaction’s likely to be a blank, horrified stare, especially now, with the nightmare of the Oakland warehouse fire still fresh. But yes, Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond apparently did think youngsters dying hideously would make a great premise for a musical. And so we have Ride the Cyclone, currently cluttering up the Lucille Lortel Theatre with a relentless accumulation of noisy activity and flashy effects. Of the show’s seven characters, six are the tragedy-stricken teens — five of them members of a small-town Catholic school’s chamber choir and the other a girl decapitated in the accident whom none of the rest seem to know, though she was wearing the school uniform. The seventh serves as narrator and emcee in the screwy game-show afterlife where the kids find themselves, and is, wouldn’t you know it, a fortune-telling machine, from the same funfair as the wrecked roller coaster, that has been stored in a warehouse but somehow inexplicably left plugged in, not the usual fate for old machines stored in warehouses.

As these anomalies indicate, Maxwell, Richmond, and their director-choreographer, Rachel Rockwell, feel no need for the show’s elements to be weighted down by coherence or sense, any more than they feel, or wish to make us feel, the grief that customarily surrounds the death of young people, especially a group lost in such an arbitrary way. They’re simply happy to wring as much stunt-laden, spangled showbiz as they can out of the situation, aware, perhaps, that audiences love nothing better than to give the dead a second chance, at least onstage.

It all started, I suspect, with the family portraits that come to life in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore (1887), a device reprised in the 1937 British musical Me and My Girl. Meantime, Sutton Vane’s Outward Bound (1923) had come along, to be often revived and twice filmed (the better-known 1944 remake is titled Between Two Worlds). Then there was The Halfway House (also 1944), in which a clutch of deceased travelers arrive at a Welsh inn kept by Mervyn Johns and his daughter Glynis. Later years brought the theater the posthumous supper party in Anne Meara’s
After-Play (1995); most recently, a whole subway car full of after-lifers crowded
Lincoln Center’s Newhouse Theater in the Frankel-Korie musical Happiness (2009). It seems this dead idea just won’t lie down.

Certainly the dearly departed kids in Ride the Cyclone won’t. Each of them has a would-be showstopping solo, singing their hearts out about what they coulda woulda shoulda been in life, backed up by their wildly gesticulating schoolmates. The genre-appropriate accessorizing by costume designer Theresa Ham and Greg Hofmann’s lighting make every number look like the latest upload to YouTube.

Unhappily, the creative team has been so busy gilding each of these numbers with maximum pizzazz that they forgot to give them either any distinction or any grounding in reality. The five choristers all have cartoon backstories that a graphic novelist would reject as too cheesy, and they fall into predictable types whose ambitions have an equally generic predictability: One self-promoting overachiever (Tiffany Tatreau) with a hyperkinetic power ballad; one Ukrainian-born bad boy (Gus Halper) whose hip-hop defiance conceals a gooey core of emo yearning; one disability case (Alex Wyse) who, freed of his impairments, gets to indulge in a glam-rock outer-space erotic fantasy; one inevitable gay boy (Kholby Wardell) fixated on becoming a Marlene Dietrich temptress; and one bulky, bespectacled sad girl (Lillian Castillo) to belt out the next-to-closing feelgood number. Plus the unidentified outlier (Emily Rohm, in black-tinted contacts), levitating through an eerie piece of acid-rock. As actors showing off, all are flamboyantly first-rate. If the authors had put any effort into making you care, for even a few minutes, about their characters, this might have been a good show. But if you’ll forgive my rewriting a time-honored theatrical dictum, dying is easy; musical comedy is hard.

More deaths frame the action of A Bronx Tale (Longacre Theatre), the Chazz Palminteri–Alan Menken–Glenn Slater musicalization of Robert De Niro’s 1993 film, for which Palminteri wrote the screenplay; De Niro has co-directed the musical with Jerry Zaks. Here there’s no fancy fussing with the afterlife: The deaths
occur on the Bronx’s mean streets in the 1960s; the survivor, looking back decades later, tells the tale. The effort, antithetical to Ride the Cyclone‘s, centers on a harsher reality where life and death actually matter.

Ironically, this too leads to problems with the musical-theater form. While A Bronx Tale never exactly falsifies its subject, it gives the effect of skating over everything lightly, never quite coming to grips with the grit it touches on. Its plot, a Godfather-flavored West Side Story with African Americans in place of Puerto Ricans and Molotov cocktails in lieu of switchblades, smacks more of movie storyboarding than of narrative. Musical theater’s need for
a degree of neatness and discipline doesn’t help: Everything onstage seems too freshly pressed and clean; everybody seems too healthy and too much the same age. The faint echoes of Jerome Robbins moves in Sergio Trujillo’s
choreography don’t help either.

Within these limitations, A Bronx
Tale
has its good points. Where Ride the Cyclone makes a big, artsy to-do about not having any moral, Palminteri’s story fixes the hero’s moral dilemma at the precise point of his emotional conflict. The Menken-Slater songs, carefully crafted in period-pastiche forms, supply pleasantly accurate atmosphere — it’s the kind of second-rank Broadway score from which cabaret singers love to mine the better numbers decades later. As the nurturing capo, Nick Cordero, handsome and gifted, fills his second Palminteri role — he played Cheech in the misbegotten
musicalization of Bullets Over Broadway — with forceful charm. Bobby Conti Thornton as the hero, Richard H. Blake as his father, and Ariana DeBose as the girl he unwisely pursues are all excellent. The overall result isn’t bad, just a little bland for the vital matters involved. But at least, unlike Ride the Cyclone, it has a sense of how vital those matters are.

More: