Urinetown – What A Way to Go
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
A big part of watching a show like Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ Urinetown is playing spot-the-reference (this also has the added benefit of getting really old to your date). If you’re paying attention, you start to realize that it’s packed frame to frame with allusions to other Broadway mainstays: there’s Les Mis, of course, but there’s also The Cradle Will Rock (an in-joke on an in-joke with this cast), Mother Courage and Her Children, Chicago, and even touches of Annie, How to Succeed in Business, Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, and Evita, towards the end. Urinetown works on a lot more levels than just making a theater nerd feel smug, though: it’s a social justice show, a send-up of that very thing, a crowd-pleasing, open C musical. The fact that Stillpointe’s production mostly succeeds on all of these is more than a plus, it’s kind of a sensation.
The show’s coat hanger plot is part of the joke, and should feel familiar to pretty much everyone who consumes any type of media. An evil corporation, in this case the Urine Good Company, is grinding its heels into the poor by restricting a desperately needed resource. In this case, it’s water consumption and public utilities, so the be-vested, be-headscarfed good guys must pay to pee. The arc is predictable, the catalyst for the action the arrival of Hope Cladwell (Sarah Burton), daughter of the evil corp’s main baddie. Her subsequent romance with tri-color flag waver Bobby Strong (Brice Guerriere) is strong enough to collapse hierarchies and bring about social change…or is it?
The intensely energetic cast kept things moving and prevents the joke from wearing too thin, though satire by Act II can sometimes feel like a lot of a good thing. I like how Burton shifted from her baby-talk speaking voice to a powerful singing one, and also her specific warped naughtiness (that eyebrow, tho!). She and Guerriere doing “Follow Your Heart” are a riot, and their stupid, great, acrobatic lust was the highlight of the show, elevating Hope and Bobby past boring lovers to hugely comic caricatures, which works fabulously. Caitlin Weaver fucking turns it in, despite being a touch young for the part, as the snarling Penelope Pennywise, a brash and petty overlord of the local toilets. Weaver’s voice is agile, swaggering, and extremely controlled, with a smile pulling at the side of her mouth in “It’s a Privilege to Pee”. Danielle Robinette is at her most wry as fourth-wall-breaking Officer Lockstock, and she and Caitlin Rife, as the ENORMOUS teddy bear totin’ Little Sally, make a knowing duo as they break down the most eye-rolling of musical conventions. Christopher Kabara (Cladwell B. Bladwell) and Robert Harris are a solid villainous team, and really bite down on it too, particularly Harris as Senator Fipp, who, at times, seems like he’s doing a strange Penguin impression. Eduard Van Osterom gives great ooze as slimy lackey Mr. McQueen, and Kathryne Daniels’ pragmatic wit is always a welcome presence, here as “Old Ma” Strong.
Director Grace Anastasiadis hits the tone of Urinetown precisely – she knows that it’s the broad stuff is great, but that the show is at it’s funniest when it’s sending up the most overblown, self-important musicals of the genre. Her choices strike a hilariously somber note, with the actors doing aggressive eye-contact that I found side-splitting. She’s helped by the smooth blend of the voices and pep of the band (BIG hat tip to Cody Raum on the bass), courtesy music director Stacey Antoine, and the kicky Charlestons by choreographers Amanda and Caitlin Rife. Anastasiadis could have done more with tying the themes inherent, rights violations and corporations profiting off of the denial of human necessities, to what is actually happening in the world, but she doesn’t push too hard on this, which is a little disappointing, since it’s just so there. Also a letdown is the lack of diversity. The mostly, if not all, white cast doesn’t exactly put a finer point on real-life social issues (and lines like “Now is a new day, when each of us, regardless of race…” don’t really make logical sense).
Stillpointe is famous for its lush scene setting, and design, once again from Ryan Michael Haase, is quite stunning with his riffing on good ol’ red, white, and blue, if a little more stripped down than usual. Haase uses projections liberally, and to good effect, since the ceiling at Mt. Vernon Place is criminally high, and the projections bring the space in, wisely. Costumes (Nicholas Staigerwald) are fantastic, a bunch of jokes on their own with a, um, very yellow palette. I enjoy the little touches, like the way Bobby’s scarf color ties him to Hope, while the rest of his outfit marks him firmly proletariat. Side note: Mt. Vernon Place is not air conditioned and the actors are not mic’ed, which makes it rull hot and hard to hear, at times. The lack of amplification, the noise of the fans, and the height of the space combine to make some of the low tones drop out, and some of the actors can’t really climb out of the dead spots. It didn’t put a damper on the show for me, really, but it is something to be aware of, especially if you are sensitive to heat or have difficulty hearing.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Stillpointe’s Urinetown may not have pushed exceptionally hard to make the 2001 text relevant almost twenty years later, but it does succeed in keeping the fringe vibe of this fun show intact. The production is committed, and everyone is all-in on the project and the jokes, which makes the show feel like an evening gently ribbing old friends. As a musical, it’s a great one, with exceptional vocal and musical talent, big and brassy without losing the edge. If you’re going, and you’re bitching about how hot it is, you’ve rather missed the point.