Urinetown: The Musical
Think the long lines for the restrooms during intermission are bad? Consider yourself lucky not to be a citizen of Urinetown: The Place, where due to a severe water shortage the residents are forced to pay for the usage of public amenities or face the gruesome consequences. Consider yourself even luckier, though, if you happen to be an audience member of Urinetown: The Musical, where the voices are extraordinary, the staging is clever, and the jokes are sharp and, er, overflowing.
The Lyric Stage Company opens their 2005-2006 season with this quirky underdog musical, a former New York Fringe Festival phenomenon and 2002 Tony Best New Musical nominee. Penned by Greg Kotis (book and lyrics) and Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics), Urinetown centers around Bobby Strong (Rob Morrison), an idealistic young man who works at Public Amenity #9, which is controlled by the greedy and corrupt corporation Urine Good Company. Once Bobby meets and falls in love with Hope (Jennifer Ellis), the daughter of UGC’s president Caldwell B. Cladwell (Sean McGuirk), he is inspired to lead a revolution against the proposed rate hikes and win lavatory and personal freedom for all.
The vocal talent assembled by director Spiro Veloudos is strong enough to rattle the pipes of Janie E. Howland’s joyously detailed and multi-tasking set. However, the acting is not always as flawless as the singing. Morrison’s “Run, Freedom, Run!” and “Look at the Sky” erupt with a voice so powerful that detecting that same charisma during his spoken scenes becomes a bit of a challenge. While he does score big in the boyish charm department, Morrison has yet to learn how to consistently command the stage as a heroic leading man. Likewise, Ellis brings her lovely soprano to Hope’s sweeping operatic-style numbers (and doesn’t fare too poorly on the meatier “I See a River” either), but her Hope Cladwell is just a little too empty-eyed, too sweet, with none of the comedic silliness traditionally associated with her character.
Veronica Kuehn steadily steals the spotlight with her dynamically sung and attention-grabbing Little Sally. McGuirk, while no John Cullum, does manage to revel in the delicious evilness of Caldwell B. Cladwell, especially during the riotous “Don’t Be the Bunny.” Maryann Zschau appears right at home in the rubber apron of Penelope Pennywise, and Christopher Chew keeps the Brechtian atmosphere prominent with his tongue-in-cheek, winking authority as narrator Officer Lockstock.
The Brechtian elements of Urinetown are showcased brilliantly by Veloudos, but it is that hyper-awareness of the audience that leads the cast to initially try too hard. As the first act progresses and the actors relax, the naturally humorous moments emerge more effortlessly, the energy picks up, and soon we find the show barreling towards a more focused finale. Rafael Jean’s suitably grubby costumes appear even filthier under Karen Perlow’s gritty lighting design, and Ilyse Robbins’s snappy choreography makes surprisingly dexterous use of the Lyric’s diminutive thrust stage. Hefty credit should also be given to the eager ensemble and talented five-piece band, who fill the house (sans microphone) under the skillful direction of Jonathan Goldberg.
Often called “a love letter to the American musical in the form of a grenade,” Urinetown wins knowing laughs with its outlandish dancing homages to Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, and Les Miserables (think toilet paper as a prop for balletic rebellion). However, when its strong score, witty book, and pointed political references are paired with the talents of the Lyric Stage Company, Urinetown can’t help but emerge victorious.
Oh, and for only 25¢ there’s an Automatic Public Toilet a few blocks from the Lyric — just in case.
Urinetown: The Musical