VIEWPOINTS – RIDE THE CYCLONE & THE BAND’S VISIT: Two Off-Broadway musicals that successfully think outside the box

Mention the term “musical theater” and you’re likely to draw some strong reactions – people either love it or are repelled by it. Whichever way you look at the art form, either as God’s fabulous gift to humankind or a grating and frustratingly illogical way to tell a story, reactions are typically based on a preconception of what it means to be a musical. Indeed, most musicals tend to follow a small handful of tried-and-true formulas that few veer very far away from. However, this fall/winter in New York, two idiosyncratic Off-Broadway musicals have dared theatergoers to reconsider what it means to fall within the category. I encourage naysayers to give them a shot.

The company of MCC Theater's "Ride the Cyclone" at the Lucille Lortel Theatre

The company of MCC Theater’s “Ride the Cyclone” at the Lucille Lortel Theatre

Ride the Cyclone (RECOMMENDED), the new musical by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell (both are credited for the show’s book, music, and lyrics) currently playing at the Lucille Lortel courtesy of MCC Theater, is certainly an odd little show. Yes, it’s wildly uneven, but it’s also often wildly unpredictable (a compliment: it’s one of the few wholly original, non-derivative musicals now on the boards) and features a well-crafted score that’s about as eclectic in musical styles as any I can recall in recent years. The musical, about a tragic roller coaster accident that claims the lives of a high school choir and the purgatorial state its members find themselves in (!), also features a handful of truly inspired performances from its talented young cast – keep any eye out for each of them. The MCC Theater production is inventively directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell, who repeats her duties here from an earlier run of the show in Chicago, and produced on a high level (particularly Scott Davis’s highly detailed set design). If there’s a weakness, it would be that the book is a tad heavy-handed in its execution – the musical is clearly the work of a young team – and its themes could benefit from delving into darker, more melancholy territory. That being said, Ride the Cyclone is an exciting if imperfect new musical that deserves to be seen.

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in Atlantic Theater Company’s "The Band’s Visit" at the Linda Gross Theater

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub in Atlantic Theater Company’s “The Band’s Visit” at the Linda Gross Theater

Over at the Atlantic Theater Company is the absolutely gorgeous The Band’s Visit (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED), based on the indie flick of the same name, featuring a score by David Yazbek and a book by Itamar Moses. Although nothing much happens in the musical (about the unexpected detour that a small-time Egyptian orchestra makes during its visit to Israel), it captures the bittersweet experience of living – the quiet, everyday heartbreaks; the dull bitterness that eats away at your soul; the numbness and indifference of modern living; the uncanny power of love, in whatever form, to transform and stir the heart – better than any other piece of theater, musical or not, than I can remember. Mr. Yazbek’s score is just about as good as he’s ever produced, with his quirky pop style finally matched with material that fits it like a glove. Both book writer Mr. Moses and especially director David Cromer understand the delicacy of the piece, producing moments and sequences of exquisite delicacy, beauty, and heartbreak. The cast is just about perfect, led by quietly pained, deep-burrowing performances from Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub. Should this miraculous little show move on to Broadway and be seen by a wider audience? Absolutely, yes. But I doubt it will retain the intimacy that the current Off-Broadway production relies on.


Off-Broadway, Musical
MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre
1 hour, 30 minutes (without an intermission)
Through December 29

Off-Broadway, Musical
Atlantic Theatre Company at the Linda Gross Theatre
1 hour, 30 minutes (without an intermission)
Through January 8

Categories: Off-Broadway, Theater

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