Putting together a satirical musical with nods at classic musicals (Annie, Les Miserables), the works of Brecht and Weill (The Threepenny Opera), and even Fringe theatre and launching it in NYC could be considered risky at best. Such a show might not appeal to the general public, and in terms of New York’s Broadway theatre, might not be what Big Apple tourists would flock to see.
But the creators of Urinetown The Musical took such a risk and it paid off. This musical about pay toilets, greedy corporations, and the rise of the oppressed started at the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999, made the move to Off-Broadway for a while, before leaping to Broadway for a healthy three year run.
Flush with the humor and engaging tunes that kept NYC audiences coming for nearly 1,000 performances, Urinetown The Musical can now be savored in a spiffy production by NextStop Theatre Company in Herndon. Director Walter Ware III and company have captured the arch style of the piece and have the voices to pull off the score that alternates between ear-friendly, Broadway-style songs and duos, and edgier pieces with biting lyrics that fit the pattern of broad humor and satirical bite.
The music and lyrics were my first introduction to Urinetown through the original cast album. I have always found them clever, accessible, and memorable. The evil capitalist Mr. Cladwell offers this verse in his introductory song, for example:
“I took this town that formerly stank
I took this town and made it smell swank!
I made flushing mean flush at the bank!
I’m the man … With the Plan … And who should you thank?”
Seeing the numbers I had envisioned in my mind’s eye was a joy and I am so glad this production was my first viewing of the show. Listening to “Snuff the Girl” on the recording is entertaining. Seeing the number fully staged with comical reminders from West Side Story’s “Cool” added the extra punch.
The writing team of Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis should know their material is in great hands at NextStop. This is especially true of the hero and heroine of the show, Bobby Strong and Hope Cladwell – the perfect juvenile and ingenue to warm hearts, warbling sweetly their mismatched love affair. Bobby, (Ricky Drummond), and Hope, (Emily Madden), have easy chemistry, winning personalities, and lovely lyrical voices that spread sunshine in a musical that leans towards the darkly satiric. Their duet “Follow Your Heart” is a modern romantic classic. Madden and Drummond could model for the bride and groom on the wedding cake topper, by the way, they both look and sound like they were made for each other.
Carrying the comical shenanigans on their shoulders effortlessly are four members of the cast: Christopher Gillespie, Ryan Manning, Amy Maniscalco, and Jennifer Lambert. Gillespie is the greed-mongering, water-controlling entrepreneur Caldwell Cladwell. In the storyline prior to the musical’s first number, Cladwell formed Urine Good Company (UGC), with which he controls water consumption, the most scarce resource in the “Concrete Jungle sometime after the Stink Wars” (according to the program notes). Caldwell instigated pay toilets and the rest is piss-tory for the poor schlubs who have to scrape coins together for the “privilege to pee.”
It is not difficult to see how Cladwell represents the one percent – a CEO with a bloated salary – but director Wade and the actor playing Cladwell up the ante with this production having the bathroom-robber-baron wear orange makeup and sport a wicked comb over. Christopher Gillespie even slips in “the Donald’s” pinchy fingers for good measure. With or without the nods to Trump, Gillespie is a boffo as the baddie, from his stocky frame, nimble in the dance numbers, to his magnificently expressive face that milks every moment of Cladwell’s arc of evil. He gets to show off his brassy voice, too. His performance sets a tone for the production.
As the all-knowing, fourth wall-breaking narrator Officer Lockstock, Ryan Manning works hard to keep the balance of camp and character, succeeding most of the time. The character helps lead the audience through the show, even pointing out the sticky plot points and where something might represent “SYMBOLISM,” as he puts it. Manning is more at home with his scenes with clueless Little Sally, played with empty-headed glee by Amy Maniscalco. Manning is fun to watch as Lockstock provides exposition to Sally; her reactions are even more delightful for her cluelessness.
Urinetown the Musical
closes June 25, 2017
Details and tickets
Providing a secret link from the lowly citizens to the offices of Cladwell (no spoilers here), Penelope Pennywise is the toilet custodian at one of the dankest spots in the unnamed city of broken dreams and peeing-for-hire. Pennywise, Bobby’s boss until he rebels against the system, is conflicted about her role – as a lowly custodian or part of the corporate machine. Jennifer Lambert brings her strong comedic presence and high belt of a voice to Pennywise and she does not miss a beat – musical or comic.
Director Ware and his choreographer Kelly Crandall d’Amboise have also assembled a diverse ensemble that handles their duties with skill and punch. D’Amboise has provided distinctive and humorous dance moves and staging; the entire ensemble executes it all with style and panache that fills up the intimate performance space. I would be remiss if I did not single out all members of the Urinetown ensemble: Teresa Danskey, Dani Ebbin, Malcolm Lee, Bobby Libby, John Loughney, Lynn Audrey Neal, Brent Stone, and Bobby Sygar. Last but not least, Grant Saunders – as Tiny Tom in particular – nearly steals the scene every time he speaks a line. You won’t be able to miss him, since he towers above the rest of the cast.
Walter Ware III’s design team does their part to contribute to the theatricality of Urinetown The Musical. Christina Martin’s costumes are properly drab for the poor folks and stylish and dressy for the one percenters. Sean Cox provides added punch to Jack Golden’s simple but effective unit set with judicious projections that add context or hilarious commentary whenever needed. Likewise, Lynn Joslin utilizes lighting to full capacity, even adding dashes of humor to punctuate the satire. Watch out for the French “tri-color” when the cast performs a nod to the most famous musical about France’s other revolution. I have always been impressed with how well NextStop’s designers use the intimate space to their advantage’ Urinetown maintains that tradition of excellence.
Urinetown The Musical . Music and lyrics by Mark Hollman . Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis . Directed by Walter Ware, III . Featuring: Teresa Danskey, Ricky Drummond, Dani Ebbin, Christopher Gillespie, Jennifer Lambert, Malcolm Lee, Bobby Libby, John Loughney, Emily Madden, Amy Maniscalco, Ryan Manning, Lynn Audrey Neal, Grant Saunders, Brent Stone, and John Sygar. Choreography: Kelly Crandall d’Amboise . Music director: Elisa Rosman . Assistant Director: Katie Rey Bogdan . Set design: Jack Golden . Costume design: Kristina Martin . Properties design: Amanda Srok . Lighting design: Lynn Joslin . Sound design: Neil McFadden . Projections design: Sean Cox . Stage manager: Paul Luckenbaugh . Produced by NextStop Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.