A musical with the title of Urinetown may not immediately sound inviting to theatergoers, but potential audiences will be missing one heck of a show if they avoid this musical based solely on its name. The national tour of this funny, irreverent, and thoroughly entertaining toe-tapper, which is currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, perfectly balances the elements of serious subject matter, parody, and musical comedy genius.
Urinetown takes place in a world where a drought has caused water to be rationed to the point that there is a ban on private toilets and everyone must pay for the "privilege to pee." Love sparks between a worker at one of the filthiest low-income amenities and the wealthy daughter of the man who runs the Urine Good Company, which controls the fee-based facilities. A revolution is started, and a battle ensues between those arguing for regulated conservation of the available resources and those fighting for personal freedoms. Of course, this tale is told with generous portions of wit and wonderfully engaging songs. If this sounds different and unique, it is!
The show started life in the 1999 New York Fringe Festival, with no aspirations or hopes of coming to Broadway. However, following a successful and highly praised run Off Broadway, Urinetown made the unlikely transfer to the Henry Miller's Theatre, where it is still playing after more than two years on the Great White Way. Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (book and lyrics) rightfully won 2002 Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Book of a Musical, as did John Rando as Best Director of a Musical.
The story pays homage to the idealistic musicals of Brecht/Weill and Marc Blitzstein while also spoofing many of modern musicals. Urinetown even mocks itself, with self-aware characters mentioning how bad the show's title is and questioning who would ever come see such a musical. When topics such as corporate greed, environmental disaster, and social justice are mixed together with subtle (and not-so-subtle) bathroom jokes, ridiculously silly situations, and huge song and dance numbers, Saturday Night Live quality skits could have resulted. However, the brilliantly conceived, written and executed script and score allow Urinetown to instead be a moving, fresh, and side-splitting adventure worthy of critical accolades and awards.
Urinetown's score skillfully parodies shows such as West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, The Threepenny Opera, and many others in both music and words. However, there are beautiful, interesting melodies and intelligently witty lyrics present as well. Songs such as "It's A Privilege to Pee," "Follow Your Heart," "Run Freedom Run," and "I See A River" are likely to stick in audience members' heads long after they leave the theater.
This national tour boasts a uniformly strong cast of sixteen. Tom Hewitt and Christiane Noll turn in the show's two best performances. As the brutish head policeman, Hewitt's sarcasm and laugh-invoking body movements are perfect while serving as narrator for the story. Ms. Noll is delightfully endearing as Hope, and she shows off her crystal clear singing voice and first-rate comic timing as the female lead.
Broadway vet and Tony winner Ron Holgate provides strong vocals and clear diction as the tyrannical Cladwell. As the musical's hero, Bobby Strong, Charlie Pollock started off a bit shaky, but ended up giving a very praiseworthy portrayal as the dimwitted leader of the revolution. The role of Little Sally serves as the moral conscience for the story, and Meghan Strange's comical questioning and characterization are excellent.
The remaining ensemble members each demonstrate their bountiful talents as well. Richard Rutz, Anne Allgood, Frank Holmes, Todd A. Horman, Katie Adams, Christopher Youngsman, Jim Corti, Dennis Kelly, Jamie Laverdiere, and Cincinnati Conservatory of Music alums Beth McVey and Leslie Kritzer are all deserving of applause.
The direction by John Rando features detailed and clever staging, an appropriately sarcastic yet amiable tone, and solidly presented characters with tongues firmly planted in cheek. His staging of "Run Freedom Run" is nearly worth the price of admission alone. Choreographer John Carrafa provides energetic and fun dances throughout, and his work is highlighted in "Cop Song" and "Snuff The Girl." Jason DeBord leads a talented five-piece band in support.
The design elements for the musical are appropriately bleak and industrial. The simple set by Scott Pask features steel catwalks and a wall that turns to become either the office of Cladwell or the outside of Amenity #9. Brian MacDevitt's lighting is extremely effective, and the costumes by Gregory A. Gale and Jonathan Bixby are suitable in every respect.
Urinetown takes huge risks but also reaps large rewards for its originality and hilarity. The show is among a group of new musicals (along with Hairspray, Avenue Q, Wicked, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and others) that demonstrates that the modern American Broadway musical is alive and well. The national tour of Urinetown continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through November 2, 2003. Tickets can be ordered by calling (513) 241-7469.