It takes a lot of balls but maybe not much brain to call a musical “Urinetown,” and the joke is made several times in the show just what a terrible name it is. But that’s the point. This constantly self-referential musical makes fun of the very form while ever stuffing the show with familiar boondoggle politics, spoofing show tunes, and stock characters (evil Daddy Warbuckian capitalist, Patti Lupone look-alike witch-on-wheels, and slightly ditsy songbird ingénue.) All that said, it would be hard to say who has had more fun with this musical: its creators, the production team that has had such larks putting it on, or the audience.
If you are already a fan of musicals like The Little Shop of Horrors and Avenue Q then you don’t need to read another line of this review. Get yourself to Constellation Theatre. You’ll feel right at home in Urinetown: The Musical.
Artistic Director Allison Arkell Stockman, who won the Helen Hayes for Best Director of a Musical last year with Avenue Q (while the company as a whole garnered fourteen nominations and won seven, including Best Musical,) has delivered another crowded urban, quirkily hip musical. Guiding fifteen performers and five musicians who go for it in every number, she’s makes Constellation’s little space on 14th Street rock. There is so much sheer verve in this production, that what she, Musical Director Jake Null, and Choreographer Illona Kessell get from this ensemble is impressive. Clearly, these guys know the stuff of musical entertainment.
The show is anchored in predictable relationships even if the actual premise is fresh, albeit viscerally stinky stuff. Bobby Strong, who works as an attendant at a public pay-to-use restroom facility, watches his father dragged off because of publicly urinating for want of some pocket change. This grows his empathy for his fellow citizens forced to line up and pay to pee, and that leads him to engage in a radical act of civil disobedience, and, even though an unlikely hero, start a revolution. But not before Bobby falls in love with the big, evil capitalist’s daughter, who opens his heart, and kidnaps her to join his cause.
Vaughn Ryan Midder is terrific as Bobby. Midder has found a way to create layers inside the style of the piece, and he carries us along with his wry double-awareness into enjoying the parody. There’s Bobby falling instantly in love and getting all mushy with his girl “Hope.” Then there’s Bobby, who sees the political and social incongruities of the relationship and the dewy silliness of her personality and their romance. Then we also see the actor playing Bobby who makes asides that comment on the entire silliness of romantic musicals. At times, Midder also sheds this mask and signals he wants to play for deeper stakes. The show doesn’t quite let him do this.
In fact, the tone of the work is arch and very, very clever. Lyrics by the creative team Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis are wildly so in songs like “Mr. Cladwell” and “Don’t Be a Bunny.” I imagine, stoked with beer, coming upon a performance at a Fringe event and going, “Like, wow!” Let’s remember the 2001 New York International Fringe Festival is where the show began. It has that fast and loose feel.
Null takes it all in stride. He and his orchestra of five musicians bookend the stage and play the hell out of this score.
Katie Keyser plays Hope Cladwell, the love interest, and lights up the whole evening with her bright comedic presence. This actress has a beautiful voice and a winning style with songs like “Follow Your Heart.” The love duet between Hope and Bobby is one of the most beautiful, funny, and touching moments of the show.
Matt Dewberry and Jenna Berk have a great thing going, having both walked away with Helen Hayes Awards for Avenue Q, and give us the unlikely but altogether likeable pals – Officer Lockstock and the tough, ballsy street kid, Little Sally. They both exude confidence in their roles and, as the shared narrators, clearly enjoy slipping into direct address with the audience. Dewberry even does double service, marshaling audience members into the crowded restrooms during intermission, so you’d swear we’d all slipped into Urinetown.
The other cast members give what is required in the show with a lot of over-the-top performances. Christine Nolan Essig indeed bears a resemblance to the young Patti Lupone and has a similar balls-to-the-wall approach to singing. When in the second act, this actress sings in her soprano register, her voice reveals a more subtle and flexible vocal instrument. I wanted to hear more of her colors, but for what this score demands she sure has the pipes to just about shatter glass.
Urinetown: The Musical
closes October 9, 2016
Details and tickets
Nicklas Aliff plays the cartoon villain, Mr. Caldwell B. Cladwell, with shaved head and dressed in a dazzling white suit. As he struts with panache, he barks out songs like “Don’t Be a Bunny” that could have been taken right out of Donald Trump’s playlist. The rest of the ensemble zips and unzips multiple times to dance, sing, and throng convincingly in order to give us this septically-challenged dystopia.
A.J. Guban is a designer who is endlessly creative and resourceful. Here he has given us a gritty set with lights seeming to come up through grates, shooting through wire fencing, and projected purple and emerald green against dirty brick walls. It all feels organic to the show, the old Source building, and the not-quite-whitewashed gentrified goings-on along 14th Street.
To my mind, this is not a musical for the ages. But if you like your theatre dark but not too dark and bright but not too bright, and most especially if your taste runs to good old spoofing fun, then you’ll have a ball.
Urinetown. Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann. Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman. Musical Direction by Jake Null. Scenic and Lighting Design: A.J. Guban. Costume Design: Robert Croghan. Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan. Props: Kevin Laughon. Choreography: Illona Kessell. Featuring Matt Dewberry, Jenna Berk, Christine Nolan Essig, Vaughn Ryan Midder, Katie Keyser, Harrison Smith, Matthew McGee, Patrick Murphy Doneghy, David Landstrom, Valerie Adams Rigsbee, Emily Madden, Rick Westerkamp, Amy McWillians, Christian Montgomery, and Nicklas Aliff. Produced by Constellation Theatre Company . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.