Also see Sharon's review of Eleemosynary
Sometimes, there’s a loss when the subversive becomes mainstream. When Urinetown The Musical first opened in New York, it was a great little secret. Small, filthy, self-mocking, funny, intelligent - it was the perfect antidote to big, old-fashioned tap dancing musicals and sweeping gothic romances. Starting with a traditional boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks-falls-for-the-rich-socialite plot and an equally traditional rebellion-against-the-corrupt-powers plot, Urinetown then attacks them with a wicked sense of humor that parodies these musical theatre staples while celebrating them. It became the little musical that could, starting at the New York International Fringe Festival and ultimately working its way all the way Broadway.
And now, the musical that started life as an outsider poking fun at those on the inside, is solidly on the inside itself. Coming to Los Angeles as part of the Broadway/L.A. season, Urinetown finds itself packing ‘em in at the 1900 seat Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills.
First, the good news. Success doesn’t seem to have spoiled Urinetown. It’s still as tongue-in-cheek as it has always been. And the touring cast visiting Los Angeles is as good as they come. Ron Holgate plays greedy capitalist Caldwell B. Cladwell, the man who made himself rich during a devastating water shortage by having a monopoly on pay toilets. Holgate revels in the evil of Cladwell, and his song about being the hunter rather the prey, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” is a highlight of the first act. As his daughter Hope, Christiane Noll is the very picture of well-meaning innocence, with an impossibly guileless delivery and a soaringly beautiful voice. Her beau is Bobby Strong, played by Charlie Pollock with a James Dean-like charisma and a strong voice easily capable of riling the masses to revolt against a pay toilet price increase. And if that weren’t enough, the role of Officer Lockstock - who is at once brutal authoritarian and friendly narrator - is played with scenery-chewing glee by Broadway’s original Lockstock, Jeff McCarthy.
Now, the not-so-good news. The sound system for this show does not put the show across. Perhaps the problem was simply a first night issue that will be soon resolved; perhaps the sound was fine in the orchestra and only a problem at greater distances - in any event, on opening night, from the mezzanine, the sound very nearly destroyed the show. Jeff McCarthy’s microphone was amplified so much that he had his very own buzz. He could not be clearly heard in song, and even some of his spoken dialogue was lost. The problem wasn’t just restricted to McCarthy. The ensemble was amplified to the point that many of the show’s intelligent lyrics were completely lost.
Perhaps the production’s audio difficulties make the visual elements stand out. John Carrafa’s brilliant choreography never misses a trick, no matter how cheap. (Picture a classic dance number. Now picture one of the ensemble going through the motions while very pregnant. And another doing the best she can to dance along although she’s tied to a chair.) There are two big dance numbers at the top of the second act - both full of familiar dance quotations that, taken out of original context, are amazingly funny - which really make the show. While the first act of Urinetown has to take itself somewhat seriously in order to establish the plot, the second act is more firmly grounded in parody. As soon as the rebels start snapping their fingers like the Jets in West Side Story, you know you’re in for a fun ride.
If only the sound got working, perhaps the whole show would be as fun.
Urinetown The Musical runs at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills through May 23, 2004. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster.
The Araca Group and Dodger Stage Holding in association with TheaterDreams, Inc. and Lauren Mitchell present Urinetown--The Musical. Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann; Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis. Scenic Design Scott Pask; Costume Design Gregory A. Gale and Jonathan Bixby; Lighting Design Brian MacDevitt; Sound Design Jeff Curtis and Lew Mead; Wig/Hair Design Darlene Dannenfelser; Fight Director Rick Sordelet; Orchestrations Bruce Coughlin; Miscal Supervisor Edward Strauss; Musical Director Jason DeBord; Music Coordinator John Miller; Technical Supervisor Peter Fulbright; Casting by Jay Binder, C.S.A., Laura Stanczyk; Production Stage Manager Matthew G. Marholin; General Management Dodger Management Group; Marketing Dodger Marketing; Tour Marketing and Publicity Catherine Major; Musical Staging by John Carrafa; Directed by John Rando.
Photo by Joan Marcus