Prognosticators sometimes write about the future threat of world-wide drought. But how often does anyone speculate about the fate of private toilet facilities in such a world? Urinetown, Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis, Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann, dramatizes, in comic, cartoonish fashion, that very situation. In the world it depicts, human waste elimination is permitted only in public facilities, run by a ruthless corporation, UGC, and everyone must pay for the privilege to pee. Then along comes trouble, trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for . . . pee. As staged by the New Haven Theater Company in their performance space on Court Street, the Tony-Award-winning Urinetown is lively grassroots theater, a showcase that allows the entire company—expanded with some new recruits to achieve a cast of 17—to show off singing voices and dance moves and comic timing we didn’t even know they had. The company has always shown a strong propensity for ensemble work, but what they’ve achieved this time may surprise—and should certainly delight—their audience.
The musical itself, which has been popular since its Off-Broadway debut in 2001, around the time of 9/11, isn’t just romantic silliness, as so many musicals are, but has points to score, in rather broad fashion, against unsustainable lifestyles, corporate malfeasance, political chicanery, greed, totalitarian laws, and even the limits of heroism. In other words, it’s a play that, like NHTC’s Waiting for Lefty last winter, has the kind of timeliness that should only add to its popularity.
Another strength of the play itself is its ability to provide songs that have immediate access as “show tunes.” Hollmann and Kotis have created a great pastiche, recalling any number of other musicals and commenting upon the very business of musical theater, and of self-conscious, avant-garde touches, through the use of one of those stock narrators (Jeremy Funke) familiar from such small-time theater chestnuts as Our Town. (Indeed, the title “Urinetown” could be taken as a play on the latter title: from our town, to your town, to “your in town”—a play on the identity of Urinetown as a place). Funke, as Officer Lockstock (of course his partner, played by producer Steve Scarpa, is named Officer Barrel), keeps us apprised of the storyline, often interacting with Little Sally (Hilary Brown), a forthright young thing dutifully collecting coins to pay for a pee, and often questioning the underlying logic of the production.
Some stand-out bits: the performance of “It’s a Privilege to Pee” by Off-Broadway veteran Sabrina Kershaw, as Penelope Pennywise, the no-nonsense enforcer of regulations about urination; the songs introducing us to the Bad Guy Big Wig, Mr. Caldwell B. Cladwell (George Kulp, exuding the greasy charm one expects from small-town potentates, and not above a little hoofing), and “Cop Song,” giving us the viewpoint of the Law with fast-paced choreography;
the song in which our hero, Bobby Strong (Peter Chenot), a civic servant at Public Amenity #9, develops a conscience, finding himself smitten with Cladwell’s winsome daughter Hope (Megan Keith Chenot, also musical director) who tells him “Follow Your Heart,” and the song in which Bobby gives hope to the poor (before literally giving Hope to the poor): “Look at the Sky,” a rousing paean to peeing freely; and my favorite number, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” in which Cladwell and his staff (including very watchable comic turns by Ralph Buonocore, as Mr. McQueen—the name says it all—and Josie Kulp as Miss Millennium) spell out how to crush the rabble.
In Act II, the rebellion that closes out the first Act risks violent confrontation; Bobby rallies the rabble with “Run, Freedom, Run!”,
a jaunty gospel-tinged song that sounded to me like it would’ve been right at home in one of those old Elvis movies, and there’s also a touching number (“Tell Her I Love Her”) due to some bad news. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that another strength of Urinetown is that it has the courage of its convictions, avoiding the kind of neat happy ending that is the trademark of most musicals in favor of something much darker. Suffice to say, just because you’re pissed off, doesn’t mean you have a plan.
The guys do fine—Chenot, Kulp, Funke, Erich Greene, all manage to belt their songs with enough force to overcome the fact that acoustics are not the space’s strong suit—but the real treat is listening to the ladies—Kershaw, Chenot, Brown, all able to give great uplift to their musical numbers.
Special mention as well to the indispensable musicians who make the spare arrangements work—the whole score is played on drums and keyboard by David Keith (drums) of Mission O and The Chrissy Gardner Band and Jeremy Hutchins (keyboard) of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony and St. John’s Church.
Urinetown tells the tale—with songs, clowning, and speeches—of a world reduced to dire restrictions. NHTC, under director Hallie Martenson, has created a stripped-down, bare bones production that matches the show’s singing and dancing on the edge of the apocalypse feel. Like a latter day Moses, Bobby Strong says, “let my people go,” but the right to relieve oneself at will comes with a price. For all its silliness, Urinetown has a lot on its mind, and NHTC’s production does the show proud.
The folks of NHTC choose shows well to show off their strengths, but with Urinetown they show that their strengths are greater than imagined. Go, while you still can: four more shows: May 16-19, 8 p.m.
New Haven Theater Company presents
Urinetown: The Musical Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis; Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann Directed by Hallie Martenson
May 11-19, 2012