Still got ‘em in Europe here and there, and one inspired Greg Kotis to write the book and lyrics for what became the metaphoric, metaphysical and just plain old meta production, "Urinetown: the Musical". Mark Hollman co-wrote the lyrics and provided the score, and 11 years after its opening, Stray Dog gives it an outrageous, outstanding production that just as funny and ever and even more relevant than it was back in the day.
Justin Been and Gary F. Bell and their crack team of designers and stylists who gave us the amazing "The Who’s ‘Tommy’" in 2011 are back in top form. Antonio Rodriguez, unforgettable as the Pinball Wizard owns another main character now too: Bobby Strong, the juvenile love interest and heroic leader of the rebellion that occurs when the people decide they should “pee for free.” It’s hard to say that Rodriguez plays the “lead”; however, because that designation could also go to Jennifer Theby, the ingénue, who owns the role of Hope Cladwell or Keith Thompson as Officer Lockstock, the policeman (with his partner Officer Barrel [Josh Douglas]) and narrator, who tells us, through the character of Little Sally (Berklea Going) or sometimes just directly, what’s going to happen. No confusion about when Act I is over in "Urinetown", for example.
The whole cast is outstanding. Actors who often play leads take chorus parts, although the “townspeople” are a large and integral part of the show and each has a name sounding like it’s out of "Guys and Dolls": Joseph “Old Man” Strong doubling as Hot Blades Harry (Ryan Cooper), Josephine “Ma” Strong (Lindsey Jones), Little Becky Two-Shoes (Anna Skidis), Tiny Tom (Jeffrey Wright, doubling as “Dr. Billeax”), Soupy Sue (Sabra Sellers), and Billy Boy Bill (C.E. Fifer) We meet them in line at “Public Amenity No. 9,” the worst facility in the system apparently, run by the tough-as-nails Penelope Pennywise (Deborah Sharn) assisted by Bobby. They all take part in the mélange of musical numbers styled as gospel (“Run, Freedom, Run”), hip-hop (“Cop Song), and more.
The city’s water supply was severely compromised sometime back by the “big drought,” but, as always happens, many suffer privation during hard times, and others profit. Here, the tycoon Caldwell B. Cladwell (Christopher R. Brenner) owns “Urine Good Company,” which controls water rights, therefore he receives significant income from public toilets. He has used some of his wealth to send his daughter, Hope, to an expensive college where she learned all sorts of stuff, or at least enough to come home and work for Daddy as a “fax and copy girl.” He also maintains a senator on the take (Fipp, played by Michael Brightman) and an office full of sycophants represented by Miss Millennium (Jessica Tilghman, who has no lines but adds her lovely voice to the mix) and Mr. McQueen (J.T. Ricroft) who flames through his scenes, applying lip gloss, while flouncing about. And here is one of the aspects that sets this production of "Urinetown" apart from others I’ve seen: Everybody is always doing something appropriate to his or her character, little bits of business that add to the overall good time. The directors mention in their notes that their decision was to make the show like a cartoon, and they have. My only quibbles are that some of the company have been allowed to take the mugging too far, so that it can become distracting here and there. The fact that Cooper and Sellers are made up to look like zombies is timely, according to the whims of pop culture, but I found it a bit over the top, even in for this exaggerated style.
A brave choice the directors made was not to mic the actors, and they are all fine singers. The only problem I had was with Brenner who, when turned away, could be a little hard to understand. But he pulls off his big number, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” in grand style anyway. Ricroft doubles as choregrapher, and while some are stronger dancers than others, everyone has fun with the movement, cleverly designed for a fairly restricted space. Alexandra Scibetta Quigley’s costumes are appropriately shabby, in drab earth tones, except for Hope, who is dressed in vivid red, green and, finally, yellow, the representative color of the rebellion. Cladwell and his minions are in business suits, even the secretary.
The set is an olio of junk with platforms, the highest of which is key to the show. The Brechtian environs were designed by Justin Baronex. The usual crew handles sound and lights (Justin Been, lighting designed by Tyler Duenow) and Chris Peterson has a credit as vocal director and has done a fine job. The instrumental music is recorded but the mix is good, and the singers’ voices come through clearly. Generally, I prefer a live orchestra, but in this case, live vocals more than make up for it.
Actors interacting with the audience has become a trademark of sorts with Stray Dog, and this show is no exception. The aisles are used for entrances and exits, for the players to beg us for extra coins or enlist us in their “cause” by handing out pamphlets. The technique adds to the sense of intimacy and immediacy of live theatre. However, the most impressive performance in this show comes from Jen Theby whose Hope is only shown onstage. She’s not only a fine singer, but she’s also a knockabout comic in the Lucille Ball tradition. I’ve enjoyed watching her since she was a student at Saint Louis University, and I think this is her best work to date. Sharn also played Pennywise in New Line Theatre’s production of "Urinetown" a few years back—but she’s directed very differently here. She’s even a blonde instead of a redhead and I found this version more likeable (in a sort of not likeable way).Rodriguez shows he can be a team player, and while is Bobby is very strong indeed, he readily steps back to let others shine. Thompson’s Lockstock is another standout. Overall, this is a sharper, sexier interpretation of the material.
When the show opened in 2001, it was relevant, but it’s even more so today. One of the characters carries an “Occupy” sign, and it fits right in. The ecological and economic issues and the struggle for self-determination at the heart of the satire (which also sends up other musicals and the form itself) are continuing concerns. And in an election year with all the hot air we’ve endured already, Caldwell P. Cladwell and the senator in his pocket are in their element. In all, this is my fourth visit to "Urinetown", including Broadway and the Rep, and my favorite to date.