Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
A musical with the title of Urinetown may not immediately sound inviting to theatergoers, but potential audiences could miss out on one heck of a show if they avoid it based solely on its name. Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio provides a stellar production of this funny, irreverent, and thoroughly entertaining toe-tapper. The talented student cast, coupled with on-point direction, brings this gem to life with elements of serious subject matter, parody, and creative musical theater.
Urinetown takes place in a dystopian 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 (private toilets) 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 sardonic irony, comedic wit, and wonderfully engaging songs. If this sounds weird and unique, it is, in a most delightful way!
The show started life as part of the 1999 New York Fringe Festival, followed by successful runs Off-Broadway and on Broadway. Urinetown eventually won a number of Tony Awards in 2002, including Best Score and Best Book of a Musical.
The book by Greg Kotis pays homage to the idealistic musicals of Brecht/Weill and Marc Blitzstein while also spoofing many 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. The topics covered, such as corporate greed, political corruption, environmental disaster, social justice, and even sexual harassment, are as timely as ever, and are mixed together with subtle (and not-so-subtle) bathroom jokes, ridiculously silly situations, and huge song and dance numbers. It could have all easily turned out like an amateurish skit, but due to its brilliantly conceived, written and executed script and score, Urinetown is a moving, ingenious, and side-splitting adventure worthy of critical accolades and awards.
The score by Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (lyrics) skillfully parodies shows such as West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Threepenny Opera. However, there are many original-sounding songs with beautiful, interesting melodies and intelligently witty lyrics. Songs like "It's a Privilege to Pee," "Follow Your Heart" (a duet for the romantic leads featuring some lovely harmonies), the gospel tinged "Run Freedom Run," and "I See A River" are likely to stick in audience members' heads long after they leave the theater.
The performers at Wright State show off many talents with this show. David Emery captures the sweet-natured yet dimwitted (but with a comically odd knowledge of certain complex subjects) personality of lead character Bobby Strong, and shows off apt and solid vocals. Celia Arthur provides lovely and varied singing as Hope, and skillfully portrays the naïve and ever "hopeful" attitude of the show's heroine. Tristan Allen presents Caldwell B. Cladwell (say his name to get the "in joke") as the maniacal and manipulative villain through very funny over-the-top antics well-suited to the role, and supplies solid vocals.
Turning in perhaps the best performance is Alejandra Solis as Little Sally, the wide-eyed, poor waif who is the moral conscience of the show. Her humorous facial expressions, powerful singing, and highly committed acting choices are a joy to watch. Ian Patrick Ashwell does well taking on the challenging role of Officer Lockstock. Lockstock and Little Sally are also the narrators of the show, and Solis and Ashwell get lots of laughs via their dry delivery of some of the show's best lines. As Penelope Pennywise, Emily Chodan demonstrates powerful vocals and hams it up well as the overseer of the filthiest toilet facilities in town. The remaining ensemble members do quite well in support.
Director Lee Merrill provides detailed and clever staging, an appropriately sarcastic yet amiable tone, and a solid mix of broad takes and subtle moments which are appropriate to the material. Choreographer Jessica Eggleston supplies energetic and fun dances throughout, never copying the original Broadway moves, but still well-suited to the piece. Sherri Sutter leads a solid three-piece band (two keyboards, drums), but the original orchestration is missed at times.
Urinetown at Wright State is presented in the Herbst Theatre black box space. The simple tiered set by Pam Knauert Lavarnway features several levels, a "wall" of empty water bottles, and a several interesting details. The effectively stark lighting is by Emily Hope, and Jonah Larson's costumes skillfully show the economic differences between the two groupswith sleekly elegant clothing for the elite and torn, dirty outfits for the poor.
Urinetown is a different type of musical in its subject matter, but still of high quality in its writing and general form. Kudos to Wright State University for providing a well-performed and directed production which highlights the piece's many assets while also showcasing its talented student cast.
Urinetown continues at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, through December 10, 2107. Tickets can be ordered by visiting www.wright.edu/tdmp or calling 937-775-250.