Cyclone (and the Pig-Faced Lady)
nytheatre.com review by Robert Attenweiler
September 24, 2008
Just because summer is officially behind us doesn't mean we have to wait until next year for that season's usual crop of superhero blockbusters. In Cyclone (and the Pig-Faced Lady), presented by New Perspectives Theatre Company, you don't get to see the heroes shoot lasers from their eyes or employ a stock of fancy gadgets. This time the heroes get to sing.
Cyclone (and the Pig-Faced Lady) is the story of Sally Kaplan, the creator of the comic book series from which the musical gets its name. Cyclone is a beautiful vaudeville star on Coney Island in the 1920s who, it just so happens, has a range of superhuman abilities like super strength, super speed and the ability to whip up cyclonic gusts of wind. Cyclone is aided by her sister, Pia, who, while hiding her face behind a gypsy's shawl, has the face of a. . .well, you get the idea. The Pig-Faced Lady's gift is prescience—she can tell the future—which comes in handy in warning Cyclone of an alarming number of disasters poised to befall their Coney Island amusement park world. But there's a new act in town: Dashing and mysterious Mephisto (who is rumored to be the devil) has arrived on the boardwalk with his House of Horrors and he wants Cyclone for his act, as well as for his bed. Great Scott! What will become of the super-powered sisters? Can Mephisto be stopped?
But, see, that's just half of the story. The audience also follows Sally (Ariela Morgenstern) as she struggles with the rigors of being in complete creative control of this comic. She writes, she draws, she inks. . .she has very little time for anything other than the stories she tells. So much so, that when her boyfriend Andy (Paul Niebanck) gets a promotion at work and needs to move from New York City to Houston for a year, she breaks up with him, rather than being taken away from her creative pursuits. "Cyclone," the comic book, becomes a huge success, seemingly justifying Sally's obsession with her work. That is, until September 11, 2001 when, returning from a comic book convention in Philadelphia, Sally gets a message on her answering machine from Andy. He is back in the city and is now in one of the hit towers, calling to tell her he loves her.
That is the heart of Cyclone (and the Pig-Faced Lady): the shock Sally feels when, used as she is to dealing daily with "good vs. evil," she has to expand her engagement with the world to understand that it is not so easily reduced and we do ourselves no service by hiding in fantasies.
Cyclone (and the Pig-Faced Lady) shifts between these two stories with Morgenstern providing the bridge: she plays both Sally and Pia, underscoring Sally's own need to uncover herself—to, as the press materials state, "become the hero of her own story." Most of the show's songs, written by composer Rima Fand and librettist/lyricist Dana Leslie Goldstein, are contained in the comic book world and they are infused with the same 1920s carnival feel as the story: they are fun and flashy.
As the story progresses, though, the songs begin to creep into Sally's world, including the very nice "Haunted" and the finale "Wake Up to the World." For me, though, the most memorable is the song "If Life Were Like a Comic Book," sung to Sally by a group of rabid comic book fans at the convention she attends. The wit in the lyric writing really pops with this song that—while playing to the main emotional conflict of the show—is allowed to not take itself too seriously.
Fittingly, the hero and villain of 1920s Coney Island give the standout performances of the show. Jodie Bentley as Cyclone (and her civilian identity, Roma) and David Garry as Mephisto obviously have fun with the broad strokes of comic book good and evil. Garry is equally enjoyable as Peterson, Sally's editor, who infuses some fast-talking Type A humor into the contemporary storyline.
Where the show struggles, though, is in the audience's relationship with Sally. If we are going to follow her through this journey of self-empowerment, we need to sympathize with her, which is difficult. Yes, we sympathize with the shock she gets from Andy's phone message and how that makes her re-assess her life, but she is such a singularly focused workaholic before that happens that I actually felt relieved for Andy when she breaks things off with him. Nuances are not the trademarks of either comic books or musical theatre, but attention to the subtle shading of story and character could greatly help move the enjoyable Cyclone (and the Pig-Faced Lady) out from under the broad strokes of its genres and into a more wholly successful work.