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Urinetown The Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Yes, the rumors are true. There really is a musical called Urinetown, it really is about a drought-stricken future where urination is no longer free, and it really stars Broadway veteran John Cullum. The show, which made a splash at the 1999 Fringe Festival, is now receiving a full production at the American Theatre of Actors.

The premise, of course, is preposterous, yet that's what gives Urinetown its charm. Its composers, Mark Hollimann and Greg Kotis (who also wrote the book) and director John Rando revel in the ridiculous nature of the subject matter, and try to squeeze every drop of humor they can out of the idea. Sometimes, they try too hard.

The show begins with its narrator, Officer Lockstock, explaining the plight, and how anyone refusing to use public toilets ("amenities") sanctioned by Urine Good Company (UGC) will be hauled off to Urinetown, from which no one ever returns. Most of the play's action centers around Public Amenity #9, run by Penelope Pennywise and Bobby Strong. When Bobby meets and falls in love with Hope, the daughter of UGC president Caldwell B. Cladwell, he is inspired to lead a charge against a proposed rate hike that would drive urination farther out of the bounds of the city's poor.

By the end of the first act, the score has parodied expository numbers (such as "Privilege to Pee"), romantic duets, character songs, and patter songs. The show already resembles a combination of Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables (thanks to scenic and environment design by Scott Pask, costumes by Jonathan Bixby and Gregory Gale, and Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt), so when the first act finale approaches, you already have an idea of what to expect.

The finale itself, though, demonstrates the problem that will haunt Urinetown for the rest of the show. The number builds and falls back a number of times, until the final image is one that seems tremendously out of place given both the show and the material it is parodying. There is a sense of desperation about the number, as if there were too many ideas to include, and there was no willingness to leave any out.

The problem continues in the second act, with the energetic cast trapped in production number after production number that, while frequently amusing, seem to sacrifice the story of Urinetown at the expense of fitting in just more musical parodies. As a result, the second act drags considerably, and is so heavily laden with counterpoint and overly forced situations that, by the end, most of the musical and dramatic brilliance of the first act is but a distant memory.

The cast, though, tries their hardest. Jeff McCarthy is very funny as Lockstock, and his interactions with the poverty-stricken waif known only as Little Sally (played by Spencer Kayden), in which he explains the structure of musical comedy and Urinetown itself, are the comic highlights of an otherwise already funny evening.

The seriousness and Broadway experience that John Cullum brings to his role as Cladwell, makes the character even funnier, though he never seems to be onstage often enough. Nancy Opel, as Pennywise, sings very well and is hilarious in the first act, but can't help the overwrought machinations of the book in the second. As Johnny and Hope, Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson make an appealing and well-sung pair.

Though significant faults in the show's second half prevent Urinetown from being the perfect parody it tries so hard to be, the strength of the cast, the score, and the absurdity of the show's underlying idea ultimately make it worthwhile. Though you will enjoy the show more if you understand the musical genres it is parodying, there is something for everyone in Urinetown.

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Urinetown The Musical
Music and lyrics by Mark Hollimann, book and lyrics by Greg Kotis
Directed by John Rando
2 hours and 10 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
May be inappropriate for children 9 and under.
The American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Through May 28
Tickets online: Tele-charge