In ‘Ride the Cyclone,’ co-directors Claudio Laso and Chris Ortiz-Belcher take the audience on a roller coaster of a ride at the Selma Arts Center

If life is a roller coaster, you have to accept this tiny but very possible chance:

Any ride could kill you.

Pictured above: Jenna Roza-Cabello as Ocean and Shelby Manley as Constance in “Ride the Cyclone.” Photo: Selma Arts Center

Such is the improbable (and memorable) premise for the musical “Ride the Cyclone,” which is in its opening weekend at Selma Arts Center. (It plays for four weekends, through Dec. 2.) Six teenagers riding a roller coaster die in a freak accident.

The story of the show itself is almost as odd as the storyline: It was written almost 15 years ago but attained a cult following among younger audiences only recently through social media.

I talked to co-directors Claudio Laso and Chris Ortiz-Belcher about the experience.


Q: To start off, I’m impressed by how quickly you moved from first learning about “Ride the Cyclone” to opening night. What was the timeline?

Chris: We discovered “Ride the Cyclone” around February of this year after being recommended a clip on TikTok from their Off-Broadway dress rehearsal. I immediately ran to YouTube to find a legal recording of the show and we both fell in love with it. We started throwing out ideas on how to bring it to the Central Valley. Initially, we submitted our pitch to Madera Theatre Project probably in April 2023? So it truthfully took two months from us finding out about the show to pitching a full production, but after we weren’t approved, it gave us more time to fine-tune our ideas, which led us to pitch it to the Selma Arts Center in June, and getting accepted in August!

Q: TikTok gets blamed for a lot of things these days, but it also seems to be a boon for small, offbeat, little-known musicals. How did that work in this case?

Claudio: TikTok is a great tool for any artist to find their niche. In this case, the musical theatre side of TikTok showed Chris and I the artistry of “Ride the Cyclone.” Clips of “Noel’s Lament” and “The Ballad of Jane Doe” showed up on our For You page almost daily. TikTok has helped us learn about a great bevy of new musicals that aren’t just Broadway or Off-Broadway productions.

Q: For me, the weirder the premise for a musical, the better. In the case of “Cyclone,” how do you explain to people the plot of the show?

Chris: In short, the lives of six teenagers from a Canadian chamber choir are cut short in a freak accident aboard a roller coaster. When they awake in limbo, a mechanical fortune teller invites each to tell a story to win a prize like no other — the chance to return to life.

And that’s just the short version of it! This show is even more weird and otherworldly the deeper you dive into it, but at the same time manages to become more human and real.

Q: Fun fact: I grew up in the Santa Cruz area, and my mother forbade me from ever riding the Giant Dipper roller coaster at the Boardwalk because “someone got killed on it in the 1920s.” Ever since then, I’ve had a sense of unease on such rides. Are you roller coaster fans, or when you ride on one do you muse on the infinitesimal chance that you’ll be decapitated?

Claudio: I actually grew up going to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk every summer with my family! Funnily enough, you will see that the set is partially inspired by the Giant Dipper. The first time I went on a rollercoaster I was 8 years old and I went on the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland. Since then, I have had a deep-seated fear and interest in roller coasters. With the added irrational fear that the movie “Final Destination 3” gave me of a roller coaster derailing. I get a lot of butterflies in my stomach before going on, I usually double or triple think getting out of line. But with age, I’ve learned to embrace the fear and enjoy the ride.

Q: There’s a song in the show titled “It’s Not a Game/It’s Just a Ride.” How does the song encapsulate what you believe to be the moral of the show?

Claudio: The title of the song is the message of the show. Although Karnak offers the students a game to be won, the show explores how life is an experience to be had. To quote the lyrics of this song, “It’s everything you loved, and it’s everything you dreamed, and it’s everything you shared, and it’s everything that seemed so oh, so terrifying.”

Q: I know of members of at least one high school choir (go Kerman!) who are excited about seeing the show. Obviously, the appeal extends beyond the narrow niche of just high schoolers who can sing in harmony. Why do you think “Ride the Cyclone” speaks to this younger generation?

Claudio: There are a lot of deep dives online that discuss this very topic, why did this show that originated in the ‘10s only recently find its cult following? I believe that Gen Z has witnessed much more tragedy than past generations. By that I mean, they live in a post-9/11 world, with frequent mass shootings, and global events occurring in real-time on their phones, with their formative years occurring during a global pandemic. They are no strangers to traumatic events. This production tells a tale of students who die young, robbed of experiencing life to the fullest. But it makes light of this dark plot. It doesn’t wallow in pity, rather it shows the full human experience, balancing comedy and drama with a lot of heart.

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Q: You’re co-directors on this show. How does that work?

Chris: It works extremely well for us! I feel like that’s largely in part of the creative relationship Claudio and I have fostered over time. When I directed “Little Shop” in the spring of last year, Claudio was my assistant director, and for “She Kills Monsters,” I assisted him as he took the lead as director. Through those experiences and countless others prior, we’ve been able to identify each other’s directing styles and creative specialties in this wonderful world of theater. When we decided to co-direct “Ride the Cyclone,” we already had an idea of what we both had to offer and how it would work.

We agreed splitting up the creative work evenly wouldn’t be beneficial for us. We work best as a team. So everything we did, we did together. This isn’t to say we didn’t sometimes divide and conquer when it came to teaching actors blocking, or meeting with designers, but anytime either of us spoke separately, our team knew it was coming from both of us. Every idea was filtered through us until it was something we truly agreed was the best option. A large key to success that we have found is trust. Not only in each other but with the extremely talented individuals we have chosen to be on our creative team. Collaboration is a cornerstone of the creative process for Claudio and me, and the show we’re directing… it’s bigger than the both of us!

Q: Still, there could potentially be a major point you two could disagree upon. Let’s say Claudio insists that the big ballad should also be a tap-dance number, and Chris says, nope, I’d rather pour boiling water on my head rather than let that happen. Do you have an agreed-upon tiebreaker? (Rock, paper scissors? A refusal to do household chores?)

Claudio: Being partners as well as co-directors has absolutely raised the same question from many of our peers. But truthfully, we don’t have an agreed-upon tiebreaker. We’ve hit a wall all of one time and our solution for it was to wait till we saw what the cast & crew were giving to the production and build on that. We believe in being collaborative on all aspects of a production. Although we are the directors, we are not the only artists with a voice. We want to make sure to be open to any and all opinions.

Q: You’ve cast the show in an interesting way: You have two actors playing the role of Karnak, and you also have two separate casts performing on different weekends. Tell us about the arrangement.

Chris: We knew going in that this show only offered seven roles, which is arguably not a lot compared to the expansive theater community we have in the valley. We pitched this show with a double cast in mind, as well as extending the normal SAC runtime from three weekends to four and splitting the cast performances by weekend rather than daily. We wanted to make the experience as equal and accessible to everyone (actors and patrons alike).

Q: Anything else you’d like to say about this show?

Claudio: If you crave new works being produced here in the Valley then come out and watch “Ride the Cyclone.” We have been very fortunate that fate has brought this team of creatives together. You don’t want to miss this unique experience.

Chris: This has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had, not only as a director but as an artist. I truly want to thank anyone who has given their hand to this production. None of this would have been possible without each and every one of you. Come “Ride the Cyclone!”

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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