Director Joe Calarco and a uniformly strong cast place their own stamp on the satiric musical by Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (book and lyrics) that won Tony Awards for best musical book and score in 2002.
In Urinetown, Hollmann and Kotis have created a delicious parody of the social-protest musical, easily recognizable to anyone who has ever seen Les Miserables, West Side Story, or especially Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. (Theater aficionados familiar with Mark Blitzstein’s 1937 labor opera The Cradle Will Rock will be ahead of the game as far as following the plot.)
The entertainment value of this production begins with the cleverly rough-hewn set designed by the reliable James Kronzer: primarily a raised wooden platform surrounded by ladders and chairs, with a small balcony for the five-piece band led by Jay Crowder. The 16 cast members can sit around the edges of the platform when not performing, or enter and exit through an unobtrusive rear door. Chris Lee’s lighting design and Tony Angelini’s sound design also add measurably to the atmosphere.
The setting is a “Gotham-like city” suffering from a chronic water shortage. As an emergency water-monitoring measure, the city has banned private bathrooms and passed laws requiring the use of privately owned pay toilets. Those who try to evade the law are exiled to a shadowy place called Urinetown, and are never heard from again. The audience learns all this from tough Officer Lockstock (Stephen F. Schmidt) – yes, his partner is Officer Barrel (Anthony Aloise) – and a grimy street urchin named Little Sally (Jenna Sokolowski), who provide self-aware running commentary. The time is a fantasy version of the Depression, with the poor wearing rags reminiscent of Dust Bowl refugees (designed by Anne Kennedy).
The central plot brings together Bobby Strong (Will Gartshore), the sensitive assistant to hard-boiled urinal attendant Penelope Pennywise (Donna Migliaccio), with lovely and innocent Hope (Erin Driscoll), whose father Caldwell B. Cladwell (Christopher Bloch) runs the toilet monopoly through the aptly named Urine Good Company. Gartshore is hilariously earnest, with a golden voice and numerous opportunities to rip open his shirt to reveal his manly chest. Driscoll is more mannered, petite with golden curls and a squeaky voice that suggests Broadway’s Kristin Chenoweth, but she’s also delightful.
Bloch is appropriately suave and sinister, and Migliaccio gives another full-voiced, full-blooded portrayal. As Bobby’s mother, Amy McWilliams has the look of a frontier woman with a hilariously exaggerated New York accent, joining other Signature stalwarts Steven Cupo and Sherri L. Edelen in adding to the overall comic effect.
Any outline of the plot, however, doesn’t begin to describe the sight gags, in-jokes, and other goodies Calarco and his cast pack into this show. It ignores, for example, the birds that fly around the head of one character; the physical business appropriate for a musical that centers around bodily functions; and the overly emphatic delivery of some dialogue, in keeping with the didactic nature of Brechtian theater.
Karma Camp’s choreography adds to the free-form, slightly unhinged atmosphere. Whether the cast is doing a Fiddler on the Roof-style dance for no apparent reason or a gang menaces a hostage with plungers, the entertainment never lets up, all the way to the curtain call and beyond.
The Signature Theatre
Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis
Officer Barrel: Anthony Aloise