Go With the Flow

Urinetown is running at the WaterTower Theatre. Perfect.

What a relief that it's such a wonderful production. Otherwise the next few paragraphs of this review would overflow with wordplay about the show going into the dumper or not being worth two shakes.

Instead, let it be said that this Urinetown is No. 1. There's plenty of zip and many a pee-in-the-pants laugh in a show dripping with attitude about the bloated pretentiousness of musical theater. It's the best thing WaterTower has poured its energy into over the past five seasons. And if audiences aren't put off by the wince-inducing title, the Addison theater could really wipe up at the box office.

Urinetown wastes little of its two and a half hours actually discussing the wet stuff (thank goodness for that). The show is a smart, double-bladdered, er, barreled send-up of corporate greed and government corruption, as well as a wicked commentary on the grandiose performances and heavy-handed messages of every big Broadway musical since Oklahoma! And like lots of other shows hitting the boards these days, including The Producers, Avenue Q and a funny little revue called Musical of Musicals: The Musical!, it does that meta-theater thing of being brazenly self-referential.

It all takes place in a dingy, unnamed city suffering from a 20-year drought. Or, as the narrator--a policeman named Officer Lockstock (Paul Taylor)--tells us, it's "a town like any town that you might find in a musical." Water is in short supply, and a corporation called Urine Good Company, run by a tyrannical millionaire named Caldwell B. Cladwell (R Bruce Elliott), has privatized all the pissoirs, charging anyone who needs to use the "amenity" more than a few pretty pennies for the privilege. Morning and afternoon rush hours find some citizens begging the better-off for change (the rates keep going up unexpectedly). If they duck behind a bush or into an alley for a freebie, the poor and restless can be hauled off by the law to the mysterious "Urinetown" for punishment.

Throughout, Lockstock and a porcelain-cheeked moppet named Little Sally (the chillingly squeaky Arianna Movassagh) keep reminding us that a show with such a lousy title is not a "happy musical." Bad things will happen. Really bad things. They don't give many explanations--"Nothing can kill a show like too much exposition," says Lockstock--but it turns out that "Urinetown" is not so much a place as a euphemism for death. Instead of some island of exile for penniless urinators, it's the end of the line, a walk off the gangplank, as final an end as the toilet for an upturned guppy.

Dark as Threepenny Opera, with the flashes of wit of a Cabaret or Sweeney Todd, Urinetown, The Musical began as a tiny show on the fringes of the New York theater scene five years ago. Great reviews and strong word of mouth eventually warranted a move to Broadway, where it opened right after September 11, 2001. At the 2002 Tonys, Urinetown was an upstart winner, earning three, including awards for best book of a musical (for writer Greg Kotis) and best score (music by Mark Hollmann, lyrics by Kotis). Competing for Tonys that year were the new musical versions of Sweet Smell of Success and Thoroughly Modern Millie, both reeking with the sorts of tired show biz clichés that Urinetown rains all over.

Come to expect the big gospel get-down number? Urinetown has one with the hilarious "Run, Freedom, Run," containing a beautifully set-up sight gag with a handicapped girl that the Marx Brothers would have loved. How about the comic patter song? Lockstock does one called, appropriately, "Cop Song." And the entire cast throws themselves into a dizzy dance frenzy--spoofing moves (choreographed by Paula Morelan) from Jerome Robbins to Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse--in "Snuff That Girl."

The show itself is a pip that could easily turn to poop in the wrong hands (ewww). The comedy has to be over-the-top. The music is as demanding as Weill or Sondheim.

Every aspect of the WaterTower production flows smoothly under the direction of James Paul Lemons, who has put together an ensemble of superior voices, capable dancers and experienced comic actors. Taylor, one of the handsomest and funniest fixtures among local leading men, gets every nuance of goofy nastiness into his Lockstock. Hulking Elliott, chomping a cigar like a cartoon villain, proves to be a showstopper with Cladwell's big number, "Don't Be the Bunny."

Young Stacey Oristano, a long-legged looker whose spectacular singing voice is matched by her Judy Holliday-ish comedic flair, is a whiz as Hope Cladwell, ditzy daughter of the bathroom baron. When she falls in love with Bobby Strong (Joshua Doss), who works as a ticket-taker at the "amenity" (he's a tee-tee totaler!), they get their Tony/Maria moment, with balcony scene, in the intentionally sappy but tuneful "Follow Your Heart." After Hope's been kidnapped by a posse of the too-poor-to-pee, she turns revolutionary (wearing a Patty-Hearst-as-bank-robber beret) and leads the masses to revolt against her father and the other potty despots.

In the 11 o'clock number, "I See a River," which occurs around 10:45 p.m., the cast waves banners a la the peasants of Les Misérables and shouts huzzahs to Malthus, the 18th-century English economist whose writings warned of overpopulation and environmental disasters that could threaten the health of the planet. With that, Urinetown rises above mere sardonic tribute to the excesses of musicals and enters the realm of brilliant political satire. Urine Good Company is Wal-Mart, Clear Channel, Halliburton or any corporation that prizes profit above the well-being of people or that spoils communities by eliminating the freedom of choice.

Few commercial theatrical successes dare to deliver that bold a slap at the powers that be. For doing it in such an original and wildly funny way, Urinetown deserves to be showered with praise. It's no strain to say that WaterTower's production is a golden triumph.

Over at Kitchen Dog Theater, the second night's performance of On an Average Day proved to be anything but ordinary. The play by John Kolvenbach is intense enough--it strongly echoes Sam Shepard's True West--but when actor Christopher Carlos stopped midsentence in the middle of the first act to tell the audience "Someone just fainted over there," nobody knew if it was for real or just part of the show.

Turns out it was for real. An audience member had fallen ill and dropped to the floor in the far corner of the intimate Black Box Theater. Carlos, perched atop a refrigerator, center stage, saw what happened. He wisely stopped the show and with his co-star and co-director Joe Nemmers jumped from the stage to help the man, who was eventually taken away by ambulance. After a break for audience and actors to recover, the play resumed where Carlos had left off.

The drama is a two-hander about troubled brothers reuniting uneasily after 20 years apart. Bob (Carlos), a violent alcoholic, is on trial for assaulting a stranger. Older brother Jack (Nemmers) shows up knowing that Bob will likely go to jail soon. He has a few myths to clear up about their father, who ditched the family when the boys were young. Both men are depressed, but Jack, a suburban father of two, is suicidal. For a while it seems certain that one of the men will die at the hands of the other. But the final scene, a physical confrontation involving a loaded gun, goes in a surprising direction.

On an Average Day is difficult to sit through, unexpected mishaps notwithstanding. What happened the other night seemed to have the effect of refocusing the actors' concentration. The second act was far more compelling than the first. Carlos was particularly strong in Bob's long, booze-blurred speeches (the characters kill off six or eight beers and are well into a bottle of hard liquor by the end). Nemmers lets Jack's pain emerge gradually, his cathartic revelation to his brother at the end coming across as gut-twistingly authentic.

They say the show must go on, and this one did. That it got even better after the interruption is a testament to the professionalism and gritty determination of the actors.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner