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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Urinetown Still One of the Most Innovative Musicals of the 21st Century

Also see Richard's review of Barefoot in the Park

The inventive Urinetown, the Musical, winner of several Tony Awards in 2002, starts its U.S. tour from San Francisco. The American Conservatory Theatre is currently presenting the laughable musical at the Geary Theatre running through August 17th. From here, the production will travel to Denver, Seattle, Chicago and Boston. This is like no other musical that you have ever seen. It is mostly certainly not a Rodgers and Hammerstein or a Sondheim piece. One thing that can be said is that it is a wonderful and hilarious small musical on a big stage.

I first saw Urinetown at the small and intimate American Theatre of Actors for $25. The main reason I traveled up to the theater was not the title but to see John Cullum who was appearing in the villain role. John has been one of my most favorite actors since I worked with him on the film 1776. After viewing this audacious production, I fell in love with it. It was a show that could run for years and years and years in an Off Broadway house. I had certain misgivings when the producers announced that, due to popular demand, Urinetown would move to the run down 635 seat Henry Miller's Theatre. However, the musical was perfect for the semi decrepit theatre, and the show’s surface virtues were still intact. I knew sooner or later the rest of the country would want to see the show that New York was raving about. What better place to open the touring company but here in San Francisco?

Urinetown
Meghan Strange, Tom Hewitt, Ron Holgate, and Beth McVey

The simple plot takes place in a post apocalyptic world in which everyone must pay to pee. I won’t go into the details of why, since it really does not matter. There is a small band of greedy, rich overlords headed by Caldwell B. Cladwell (Ron Holgate), president and owner of the Urine Good Company; they control all the of government run public amenities. The law says that to relieve oneself in any other fashion is outlawed.

Our hero, Bobby Strong (Charlie Pollock), is an assistant custodian of the poorest, filthiest urinal in town, and he is against the capitalistic men of power. He leads the downtrodden masses to rise up against these money grabbers. Now, if that is not Brecht of the ’30s, I don’t know what is. Hope Cladwell (Christiane Noll) is a naïve girl with a big heart and she eventually falls in love with Bobby and helps lead the rebellion. Thrown in this clever Brecht-Weillian piece is the narrator, Officer Lockstock (Tom Hewitt), who tells us this is Urinetown, the Musical; Little Sally (Meghan Strange), a poor little girl who questions the plot of the musical; and Penelope Pennywise (Beth McVey), the rough and mannish chief custodian of the aforementioned urinal.

Urinetown opens on an almost bare stage with black brick walls, stark metal staircases and the stained tile wall of a public toilet that turns around to become the immaculate office of the Urine Good Company. That center set is almost the same size as the set in the Off Broadway and Broadway productions. The orchestra is the same size jazzy quintet, led by conductor-pianist Jason DeBord. They are located in a “jail” to the left of the stage. The book and lyrics by Greg Kotis have that Bertolt Brecht style, and music by Mark Hollman is similar to that of Kurt Weill entwined with gospel, jazz and feisty music.

The opening speech by Tom Hewitt as the Police Officer and Narrator is one of the best opening speeches that has been heard in musicals in years. The whole show is set by the tone of this talented actor who welcomes us with stern self seriousness to Urinetown. As he says, “not the place, of course, The Musical ... Urinetown the place is ... well, it’s a place you’ll hear people referring to a lot throughout the show. It’s kind of a mythical place, you understand. A bad place. A place you won’t see until act two. And then? Well, let’s just say it’s filled with symbolism and things like that.” There are so many clever lines, such as when Little Sally says “Say, Office Lockstock, is this where you’ll tell the audience about the water storage?" and Lockstock replies, “Everything in its time, Little Sally. You’re too young to understand it now, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”

The opening number, “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” also sets the tone of this dark musical comedy. It is a sly copy of the opening number from Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera. There are many highlights in this quirky show; however, the outstanding number is the persuasive, high-spirited gospel song, “Run, Freedom, Run!,” led by the appealing Charlie Pollock. There is even some Fosse type choreography in the number “Snuff That Girl.” The high energy of John Carrafa’s choreography is outstanding.

Charlie Pollock is very good in the role of the rebel Bobby Strong, but he does not have the strength of Hunter Foster from the original production. However, Pollack has a powerful and eloquent singing voice.

Urinetown's chief villain is Caldwell B. Cladwell and in this National Tour production Ron Holgate takes over the part. It is interesting to compare Cullum and Holgate since I worked with both of them on the film 1776. Cullum played the role slyly and almost gentlemanly. His marvelous rendition of “Don’t Be the Bunny” was a highlight of the original production. Holgate takes a different approach to the character. He is more bombastic in the role and he becomes more of a cartoon character than a human being. In fact, he plays the role like Richard Henry Lee in 1776. His song of the bunny is more like a person trying to sell you a used car. Christiane Noll as Hope Cladwell brings a vigorously expressive alto to her fervent ballad, “Follow Your Heart.” She is a lovely actress and a fine singer. Beth McVey is acerbically weatherbeaten and appropriately shills as Penelope Pennywise. Tom Hewitt makes a perfect laconic narrator with wonderful comments throughout the whole musical.

The main scene stealer of Urinetown is Meghan Strange, who plays Little Sally. She is absolutely brilliant as the inquisitive girl and has some of the best lines of the show. The scene in the second act in which she is on roller skates is a work of comic art. However, in this production it becomes lost on the big Geary stage. The same holds true for one of the chorus members who has a brace on her leg - her big moment also seems lost on that stage.

Although the musical has lost some of its initial charm from when it was playing off Broadway, it is still one of the most original new musicals to come down the pike in a long, long time. It makes a wonderful mockery of the entire musical comedy genre. Director John Rando has tightly directed this production with amazing speed and energy.

Urinetown has been extended through August 17 at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.


Photo: Kevin Berne


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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