nytheatre.com review by Larry Kunofsky
October 19, 2006
Urinetown The Musical is a cross between a spoof of a big boffo Broadway musical and a dark Brechtian political parable. When we think of Brecht, we think of a kind of theatre that uses alienation and didacticism to engage us in thought about the ills of society. Whereas when we think of big boffo Broadway musicals, we think of...well, big and boffo—fun, broad, anything-for-a-laugh type of theatre that exists solely for our pure delight. These elements blend together into Urinetown fairly organically, kind of like a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup in those old commercials where somebody's chocolate knocks into somebody else's peanut butter to make a new combination that works so well, it's almost amazing that no one had put them together before.
I stayed away from Urinetown during its initial run in Manhattan, and seeing it in Brooklyn at the Gallery Players is a first for me. I think that I stayed away because I was afraid that the show would be too gimmicky for me. And it is too gimmicky, I think; but maybe the gimmicky parts (chocolate?) are in place to support other elements that work so well (extending the metaphor, these elements would have to be peanut butter). Ultimately, it's a show that I'm really glad to have seen, in a very worthwhile production, but I just wanted more from all the elements, which may be unfair to expect from a piece of candy—but I think that Urinetown tries to be a full meal disguised as a mere trifle, but ultimately remains a mere trifle.
Urinetown The Musical is a fun show with some zippy singing and dancing, but also with some fairly dark subject matter as well. Our story takes place in an urban hellhole where, after years of terrible drought (referred to as "The Stink Years"), a law is put into effect that requires citizens to pay for the use of public toilets (a strictly pay-to-pee situation). If you break the law and free your bladder without putting any money down, you get "carted off to Urinetown," from whence no one has ever returned. All this scatological business could have been more prurient and, frankly, gross, than it appears in the show. This material is actually handled with great cleverness and wit and, to my great surprise and admiration, to a larger purpose. While we laugh at the strange hubbub on stage that surrounds the most basic human bodily functions, we grasp very early on that this absurdly comic premise speaks to society's oppression and dehumanization of the poor. The strength of Urinetown is that this metaphor, dressed up as a cheap gag, becomes richer and more complex as the show continues. This conceit, and the politics behind it, makes Urinetown The Musical one of the most progressive musicals I've ever seen.
Ironically, while all the pee-related material seems durable and gimmick-proof to me, almost everything else is drenched in shtick. This is especially unfortunate, since the book writer, Greg Kotis, and his co-lyricist Mark Hollmann (who also wrote the music) have a lot to say. The gimmicky part of this musical is that all the characters know that they're in a musical. I don't have a problem with this, in theory, since such a device can often create a great intimacy between the characters and the audience, but there are much, much, MUCH too many gags in Urinetown along the lines of "Gee, this is a lot of exposition, isn't it," or "A character with as many lines as I have..." etc. These bits wear thin almost before the opening number.
Most of the exposition is handled by Little Sally (Kat Aberle), a street urchin, who asks Officer Lockstock (Jon Frazier), our narrator, all the big questions pertaining to Urinetown. Both these characters are charming, to a point, but they are intended to charm by their two-dimensionality alone. And, of course, a little of this goes a long way.
The main characters, though, have a little more meat on them. Our hero, Bobby Strong (Joshua James Campbell), is the one who stands up against the powers-that-be and leads a rebellion. This rebellion is complicated when he realizes that his true love, Hope Cladwell (Catia Ojeda), is the daughter of the bad guy, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Kim Shipley), whose money-making-scheme is behind these draconian policies. When these characters are situated in the action of the story, they seem fully fleshed out. When the characters remind us that they're just characters in a musical (ostensibly, for laughs), they're just cardboard cutouts.
The cast is most effective as an ensemble, but every performer has a moment to shine individually. I was often confused by some of the comic business that director Tom Wojtunik has created, but the tone that he sets for the piece is fairly consistent. The heart of the play is in the dynamic between the romantic leads, and Campbell and Ojeda have enormous affability. The standout performance for me, though, is from Jennifer McCabe as Penelope Pennywise, the head of the public amenity (where people go to pay to do their business). This character's struggle between her job and her conscience is rendered so sharply, hilariously, and compassionately by McCabe that I almost wanted the whole play to be about Penelope, but that is, in essence, what makes a supporting role/performance a great supporting role/performance.
I have a lot of reservations about Urinetown the Musical. It's a funny show with some punch to it, but it doesn't seem to me to be funny enough, and it pulls too many of its punches. Still, I had a good time watching Urinetown, and the audience I saw it with had a blast. What works best about Urinetown is how it evokes a community. The Gallery Players should be commended for showing its audience such a good time.