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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Urinetown
Sunnyvale Community Players
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's reviews of Monty Python's Spamalot and Nine


The Cast
Photo by Christopher Berger
When Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis' (book and lyrics) Urinetown premiered in 2001, critics and audiences alike could immediately list a plethora of targets for its biting yet hilarious satire: corporate greed, political bribery, liberal naivite, mismanaged bureaucracies of all types. Experiencing in 2019 the highly entertaining, laugh-out-loud, big-sounding-and-looking Urinetown by the Sunnyvale Community Players, it is impossible also not to be drawn into dark and draconian references to the fast onslaught of global warming, to the distrust the general public has for "green" responses of corporate America, and to suspected government/corporate coalitions to keep the truth from the general public. Even more, there is a theme of the unwanted "others" that smacks in the face of our nation's sudden war on immigrants and people who have colors, religions, or gender orientations different from our so-called majority.

That said, Urinetown is mostly fun, fun, fun—and the Sunnyvale Players do everything possible to make sure we laugh and enjoy a subject that generally does not make it on the great American musical stage: peeing. Pun-packed, scattered with double entendre, and full of parodies that both poke fun at and honor many well-known American musicals, Urinetown hardly gives us a chance to catch our breath in between constant chuckles and loud guffaws. Watching its two hours (with one intermission) is like sitting through a game of guessing what is the latest mimicked musical, discovering the reason a character has a certain name, or finally figuring out that "Urinetown" could mean "You're in town" and that "Urinetown" is really "Your—and thus Our—Town."

Even before the first musical downbeat of an overture which bears much resemblance in tone and style to that of The Threepenny Opera, we are drawn into the plight of the poor of Urinetown. Ragged citizens enter the same aisles as we to huddle about on stage in front of a large sewage pipe, begging us for money so they can afford to pee. The calls for money, the frantic scurry to retrieve coins (even bills) thrown on the stage, and the near skirmishes among desperate-looking people intensify up until the downbeat itself.

Down the aisle also comes a bearded, friendly, yet somehow foreboding police officer named Lockstock (Sam Nachison) who begins to explain to us and to Little Sally (Rebecca Euchler), a sweet street urchin carrying her teddy bear, the nature of both the town and the musical,

Urinetown. In a deep, calming voice that sounds like that of a trusted radio announcer, Lockstock explains that Urinetown is "a mythical place ... a bad place ... filled with symbolism ... a town like any town ... that you might find in a musical." But we also learn that in this town, people must line up every day at a "public amenity" to relieve themselves, paying the current amount of $6.75—all because of a twenty-year drought that has lowered the water table to nothing. A mega-corporation called Urine Good Company" ("UGC"), whose towering headquarters we can see in the horizon, controls all bathrooms. Lockstock and his partner "Barrel" (Seton Chiang) haul any offenders who pee in the bush or the privacy of their homes off to somewhere also called Urinetown, never to be seen again.

Those already standing in line for morning relief sing first in separate vocal parts and then in full harmony the heart of the musical's message of society's social irresponsibility: "It's the oldest story:
Masses are oppressed
Faces, clothes, and bladders
All distressed;
Rich folks get the good life
Poor folks get the woe
In the end, it's nothing you don't know."

Penelope Pennywise (Angela Cesena), UGC matron of Amenity Number Nine—the public toilet reserved for the poorest and probably mostly homeless—steps forward further to instruct us that "It's a Privilege to Pee." With mop-like gray hair stringing over her forehead, Pennywise sings in an astounding big voice that pierces the air with a knife's sharpness a number that strongly recalls "Peachum's Morning Hymn" from The Threepenny Opera. As her voice rises arrestingly to the heights, she explains to us and once again to the poor souls gathered before her, counting their pennies, that "the politicians in their wisdom saw that there should be a law" that "you come here and pay a fee for the privilege to pee."

Pennywise's assistant Bobby Strong (Steve Roma) begins to question the morality of such a law, especially after his father Old Man Strong (Randy Wise) is hauled away by Officers Lockstock and Barrel to Urinetown. He particularly is inspired to "Follow Your Heart" after accidentally finding on the street Hope (Jessica Ellithorpe), the collegially dressed young woman who joins him in a song that sends them into Titanic-familiar territory of immediate love for each other and all humankind as they sing, "We all want a world filled with peace and joy ... With plenty of water for each girl and boy." Roma's Bobby Strong becomes an Everyman and the musical's hero, singing always in a voice clear, inspiring, and determined to do good (as in the rousing "Look to the Sky," with its supporting chorus of red-flag waving, marching peasants ready to march for "pee-dom").

Ellithorpe's Hope Cladwell is a bouncy, chirpy, recent college grad with a naïve, almost childish, air about her who has arrived to work as a "fax-and-copy girl" for her father's UGC. Ellithorpe's speaking and singing voice has a Disney cartoon twitter to it, making her duet with Roma's more grounded, serious Bobby all the more wonderful and funny, even with its serious tones.

Now that he has Hope (so to speak), Bobby is inspired to lead a people's rebellion for the freedom to pee anywhere, anytime, and with whomever they want. The Les Misérables call to action scene leads to a stampede of the urinals and toilets at Amenity Number Nine. That does not sit well with UGC CEO Caldwell B. Cladwell (Ben Hatch). With a voice that rings with a breathy threat but always reflecting his somewhat sleazy smile, Hatch is a handsome, Vegas-dressed Cladwell who goes to strange lengths with mixed metaphors about rabbits driving cars and living in shoeboxes to try and convince his daughter "Don't Be the Bunny" and not to be taken in by weak riffraff like Bobby Strong.

But Hope does return to Bobby just as the uprising hits its act one finale, in a number that reprises the Les Misérables marching and anthem-like singing and leads to a mob running and singing in slow motion to escape Lockstock and Barrel. Many twists and turns follow, and the roads unfortunately do not lead to happy endings.

This eventually confuses Little Sally, who wonders exasperated to Officer Lockstock, "What kind of musical is this? The good guys finally take over and then everything starts falling apart?" Lockstock just shakes his head, smiles knowingly and says, "Little Sally, this isn't a happy musical." After all, this is Urinetown, so how happy can Sally or any of us expect the show to be?

But under the direction of Thomas Times and especially the choreography of Derrick Contreras, there is a lot to like and be happy about in the journey to a hopeless (pun intended) ending. Especially fun are the three opening numbers of act two when we watch parodies that are heart-pounding, full-voiced homages to some of our best-loved musical moments. Little Becky Two-Shoes (Emma Blickenstaff, who is anything but little in voice or presentation) and Hot Blades Harry (an equally strong and raw-voiced Peter Spoelstra) lead a stage full of the down-and-out in a series of horas and Russian-step dances straight from "To Life" in Fiddler on the Roof while singing "What Is Urinetown?" The gym scene from West Side Story informs the finger-snapping choreography and singing of "Snuff That Girl," while the revival sounds and hallelujah-hands of "Don't Rock the Boat" (Guys and Dolls) become a raise-the-roof "Run Freedom Run." In that number, Bobby climaxes the scene by leading his army of peasants like an over-enthusiastic director of an a cappella church choir—a group who gloriously sing in heavenly, water-falling harmonies.

While the name of this company includes the word "community," there is nothing "community theatre" about the fully professional production of Sunnyvale Community Theatre's Urinetown. That goes for all the outstanding voices, the flawless and vigorous choreography, the hilarious acting, as well as a creative team superb. Sean Kraemer's set from its floor of camouflaged colors to its graffiti-decorated sewage setting to its corporate skyline in the distant horizon is a perfect palette for the changing hues and well-placed spots of Edward Hunter's lighting design. Angela Yeung and Chris Beer have ensured we hear all the deliciously in-poor-taste words and lyrics of this twenty-seven-person cast through an excellent sound design. The balance between singers and music director/conductor Ande Jacobson's seven-piece orchestra is never imbalanced as the musicians play Mark Hollman's varied score with edge and beauty. Finally, the costumes designed by Sylvia Chow are both jocular and pointed in their looks and meaning. It does not take much to see mirrors of our own local homeless or of our 1% elite when looking at those on the stage.

All in all, Sunnyvale Community Theatre's Urinetown is a destination that needs to be on every mid-peninsula musical theatre lover's calendar over the next couple of weekends. This is a don't-miss-it, community-based triumph for sure.

Sunnyvale Community Players' Urinetown runs through November 10, 2019, at Sunnyvale Community Center, 550 East Remington Drive, Sunnyvale CA. For tickets and information, visit sunnyvaleplayers.org.


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