Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2006
No matter where you live, there has probably been a production of Urinetown mounted within an hour’s drive of your home this summer. This award-winning musical about a city where you have to pay to pee is a hot property, and the Theater Barn has snagged the rights to present its regional premiere. This is a good thing because Urinetown is the kind of small-scale, quirky musical that the Barn does very well, and under Bert Bernardi’s deft direction a terrifically talented cast makes this little show the must-see musical of the season.
Urinetown was the hit of the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999. It opened off-Broadway in May, 2001, and then moved to Broadway on September 20, 2001, its opening having been delayed by the attack on the World Trade Center. It went on to win three Tony Awards, three Outer Critic’s Circle Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards, and two Obie Awards.
If you are concerned that Urinetown is one long bathroom joke best appreciated by people whose sense of humor has not developed since they were four, fret no more. The show is actually not about bodily functions but about power. Obviously, any entity that can dictate when, where, and how people relieve themselves, and what it will cost, is mighty powerful indeed. In the show these restrictions have been necessitated by a decades-long drought. Water is in short supply and its close management is imperative, but, of course, the entities and people in charge of them have found ways to profit from this ecological disaster and are anxious to continue the revenue stream.
Quick, can you name a finite natural resource that we have been convinced by government and big business we cannot live without? I’ll bet you can, and it’s far less vital to human life than water. Now you understand what Urinetown is really all about.
We are in Allegory Land here. All the characters are caricatures, broadly drawn versions of common theatrical stereotypes. The show begins with our genial narrator, Police Officer Lockstock (Kyle Fichtman) and his sidekick Little Sally (Ashley Blasland), a delightful urchin, giving us the back story about the drought. Then we see the situation at Public Amenity #9 which is run by Penelope Pennywise (Jerielle Morwitz), assisted by the young and handsome Bobby Strong (Eric Richardson). The people, and they are a pretty disgusting looking bunch since there isn’t enough water to bathe properly, are barely able to pay the toilet fees and now the controlling monopoly, Urine Good Company, is going to the legislature to raise the fees. When Bobby’s elderly father (Matthew Daly) can’t come up with the money to use the public amenity, he relieves himself elsewhere, which is a crime punishable by being sent to Urinetown, a terrible place from whence no one has ever returned.
Seeing his father carted off moves Bobby to action, and he organizes a rebellion against the pay-to-pee policy and the fee hikes. At the same time he meets and falls in love with Hope Cladwell (Lara Hayhurst), daughter of Caldwell B. Cladwell (Sky Vogel), the owner of Urine Good Company, not knowing her true identity. When he does learn who she is, during a confrontation between the government and company officials and the rebels, he takes her hostage. During an attempt to negotiate a truce Bobby is himself sent to Urinetown, and Hope’s eyes are opened to her father’s maltreatment of the people and she takes Bobby’s place as the leader of the rebellion.
The very few weak links in this energetic cast are well concealed in minor roles. At first you are struck by the strength of the leading players. Fichtman is clearly channeling Jack Burns of the 1970’s comedy team Burns & Schreiber (I know I am dating myself with that one). In her raccoon-eyed make-up Morwitz does a very funny send-up of the late Lotte Lenya. The diminutive Blasland makes an adorable tyke, the very essence of a determined child for whom all the world is still black and white.
Richardson is wholesome and appealing as Bobby Strong, and Hayhurst is just plain dazzling as the hopelessly hopeful Hope. The production number which has her, bound and gagged, dancing with the ensemble is a hoot. In fact, while many of the dance numbers are very funny, they are also send-ups of current or classic Broadway shows and choreographers. I have my qualms about this kind of inside humor. I think it dates a show very quickly and is not necessarily as funny to the audience as it is to the creators and performers. A show needs to be funny in and of itself, and not just in the context of the culture in which it was created.
Sky Vogel is a riot as Caldwell B. Cladwell. Not a strong singer, but a fine character actor, Vogel grins and slithers through his two big solos with substantial back-up from his fellow cast-mates. My new favorite song is Don’t Be the Bunny, a hilarious and zesty number extolling the virtues of sticking it to the poor, which Vogel et al deliver with panache.
It will come as no surprise to Theater Barn regulars that Daly, a veteran of many leading comic roles at the Barn over the years, and Megan Rozak, who has appeared in the last two musicals, burst out of the chorus and nearly steal the show with their second act number Snuff That Girl. As Hot Blades Harry, a dangerous and unpredictable rebel, Daly prowls the stage in a filthy undershirt with a maniacal gleam in his eye. As Becky Two-Shoes, an enormously pregnant woman with a brace on her leg who can dance up a storm, Rozak is a powerhouse. She may be little and blonde and cute, but you can bet that this Becky means business.
As Officer Lockstock’s side-kick Officer Barrell, Daniel Cohen has some nice moments. They team up for a powerful rendition of the Cop Song in Act I. Casey William Sweeney pulls some amusing faces as Tiny Tom, a poor, confused man-boy. And another Theater Barn vet, Marci Bing, is solid as Bobby’s mother, Josephine Strong.
Urinetown is billed as a “neo-Brecthian absurdist melodrama.” While that description is apt, it also makes the show sound like a real downer, which it isn’t. And this is actually a major flaw, possibly in the script and score itself, or possibly in this production. Since I haven’t seen another production of Urinetown I am a poor judge of the source of the problem, but the problem clearly exists. Officer Lockstock constantly tells Little Sally and the audience that this is not a happy musical, but the horror of the ending is obscured by the music, which, as Little Sally says, is so happy.
Normally I would not reveal the ending, happy or unhappy, in my review, but since it is likely to pass you right by if I don’t, I will. Apparently the “good guys” win. We are pretty much conditioned to accept that The People are “good” and that Government and Big Business are “bad.” If only The People had control, everything would be all right. Well, The People get control and the water quickly runs out and everyone dies. The “bad guys” were doing what was right for The People all along. Their methods may have been flawed, they may have been callous and greedy, but they were preserving the water supply. This is why, if you listen to the Act I finale, the “bad guys” sing about tomorrow and the “good guys” sing about today. The “good guys” can’t see past today to understand that the “bad guys” are ensuring they have a tomorrow.
The Theater Barn stage is bare and black and filled with artificial fog for this production. Abe Phelps has stripped the stage except for two staircases leading up to a small landing and one moveable slab of tiled wall. This leaves plenty of room for dancing, as well as creating a suitably bleak backdrop for this tale of what happens when the people’s chosen lifestyle is ultimately unsustainable. Jimmy Johansmeyer’s costumes are also appropriately drab and dingy, with the exception of the well-clad Cladwells, although even Hope’s brilliance dims as the evening progresses.
I understand that this show is a sell-out for the Barn, and that an additional performance has been added Sunday, September 3 at 7 p.m. This is good news because it will provide the Barn with the incentive to stage more small musicals that provide big fun in the future. I would rather see a show like Urinetown run for a month than see any more revue-sicals, ever!
Urinetown runs through September 3 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. Performances are on Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 & 8:30 p.m., and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20.00 for all evening performances, and $18.00 for the Sunday matinee. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. While the show is too dark for young children, youngsters 13 and up will get a big kick out of it. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006