On the face of it, the conceit behind award-winning stage musical “Urinetown” seems absurd: Citizens are required to pay for the privilege of relieving themselves at public urinals.
To baby boomers, charging people to use public restrooms is neither absurd nor unthinkable. True, there were no coin-operated urinals when we were young, but there were stalls that required a dime to be inserted before the door would unlock.
As “Urinetown” begins, we learn that an oppressed citizenry is forced to subsist in the face of a calamitous water shortage that has lasted a generation, resulting in a prohibition on private toilets to conserve the precious resource.
The villain of the piece is corporate predator Urine Good Company (“UGC”). It is monetizing the rampant despair by clandestinely joining forces with government officials to charge for the use of public “amenities.” Transgressors of the pee-for-a-fee law are summarily banished to a shadowy destination called “Urinetown.” Nobody knows what it is or where it is—until Act II, that is—but they know that whomever is sent there never returns.
The plot device for “Urinetown: The Musical” is inspired by the author’s observing pay toilets in Europe. Writer Greg Kotis took that morsel and cooked up a stylized, satirical dystopia that, in its 2001 debut, captured the imagination of the theater-going public and of Tony Award voters.
The groundbreaking, very un-Broadway-like production won its imaginative co-creator a Tony Award for best book, and a second Tony, with collaborator Mark Hollmann, for best score. The show also was honored at the Tonys for best direction.
The rigorously mounted production of Urinetown now on stage at the Ridgefield Theater Barn, a few minutes past the Westchester County line in Connecticut, benefits greatly from that unique venue’s charming physical attributes. This is an in-your-face show, in the best sense, and the converted structure offers the intimacy of cabaret-style seating that puts audience members within a few feet of the performers, who at times enter and exit through the center aisle.
What makes “Urinetown” a “meta-musical,” as the headline of this review proclaims, is that it not only ignores the invisible fourth wall to talk directly to the audience, but also pokes fun at itself (and at musicals in general) throughout the show. “Welcome to Urinetown,” Officer Lockstock (Michael Valinoti), who wears a UGC badge, greets us, adding, “… not the place, the musical.” At another point, a song lyric advises, “Your ticket should say Urinetown.” (Luckily, mine did!)
[The theater itself gets in the act, selling “Tinkle Tonic” in the lobby (lemonade and vodka), and playfully asking for a quarter as people are queued to use the restrooms at intermission. I got a big laugh out of the toll collector when I said, “I will gladly pay you on Tuesday,” referencing an old Popeye cartoon gag.]
The audience loved the cheeky homages to the musical theater, mocking its often corny cliches, with production numbers slyly echoing standard Broadway genres, as well as iconic shows like “West Side Story” and “Les Miserables.”
When the ensemble turns into a gospel choir on “Run, Freedom, Run,” it’s like a scene out of “Sister Act,” one of the funniest moments in the show. I could see the elevator pitch to investors for “Urinetown” as “Saturday Night Live” meets “Rent.”
The obligatory hero-turned-martyr of the piece is young Bobby Strong (Chris Balestriere), who leads a rebellion of the oppressed against UGC. His obligatory love interest is Hope Cladwell (Meaghan Elliot), daughter of UGC boss Caldwell B. Cladwell (Duane Lamham). They are the show’s backbone and all three are superb.
It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off the broad humor that is the hallmark of the show. In the wrong hands, it easily could become gratuitously silly and try the audience’s patience.
That doesn’t happen. One reason is director-choreographer Debra Lee Failla. Her unerring eye for casting serves this show exceedingly well. The principals all are standouts: high-performing singers and actors who hold the stage with confidence and charisma.
Mr. Balestriere and Ms. Elliot have pitch-perfect voices that are a pleasure to experience. Duane Lanham milks his musical numbers and comical bits to maximum effect. His panache is a throwback to the trouper days of show business, and it is sheer fun to watch him work.
Another reason the show’s goofy-yet-cynical treatment of Broadway musical genres works so well is that those eccentric trappings both contrast with and amplify the deadly serious messages on its mind. There’s of course manipulation of the masses, corporate plundering of public works, the futility and fallacy of populism, squandering of natural resources by all of us, social inequality, and on and on.
Very strong, professionally polished performances also are turned in by scene-stealing Elyse Jasensky as initially pernicious Penelope Pennywise, keeper of the pay toilets, who gets religion along the way; Monica Harrington as squeaky-voiced, pigtailed Little Miss Sally, a co-narrator; Michael Valinoti as Officer Livestock, who is our police escort, as it were, through the entire show; and Stephen Emerick, as punky, heavily tattooed Hot Blades Harry.
Backing them up most ably are the facially expressive James Hobayan as UGC executive Mr. McQueen, Bill Warncke, doing yeoman’s duty, switching swiftly between multiple roles, and a supporting cast that is fairly solid throughout.
Under music director Lisa Riggs Hobbs, the five-piece orchestra, which is shoe-horned into a slice of a space alongside stage right, produces a full-throated sound twice its size. There are love ballads like “Follow Your Heart,” requisite novelty numbers like “Don’t be the Bunny,” and rousing anthems like the number that is actually titled “Act One Finale,” because it epitomizes a rousing Act I finale. The score is thoroughly enjoyable and well-crafted, as its awards testify.
Ms. Failla makes resourceful and visually arresting use of the confines of the space, taking full advantage of the multi-level set that has been crafted to look appropriately squalid, by set designer Pamme Jones, with oxidized, distressed wood and black metal mesh. Along with excellent lighting design by Mark Hankla, the artful costume design, by Claudia Nerrau, also enhances the sense of place and character, especially when the ensemble portrays the ragamuffin underclass.
In the scenes where a goodly portion of the 16-member cast is on stage en masse, Ms. Failla meticulously forms tableaux and dance arrangements that are pointed, powerful and often laugh-out-loud comical.
Embellished by film-style musical underscoring heard throughout (which briefly overpowers dialogue a little bit at the start of the show), the brisk pace of the show has a cinematic fluidity that never flags. That energy demands every actor responds with military precision. Let’s just say that if you’re lucky enough to be cast in “Urinetown,” you best mind your pees and cues.
“Urinetown” plays through Sept. 28 at Ridgefield Theater Barn, at 37 Halpin Lane in Ridgefield, Conn. For more information and tickets, go to ridgefieldtheaterbarn.org. The theater encourages patrons to bring their own food and beverage to enjoy pre-show at their tables. Doors open one hour prior to curtain.
P.S. I think audiences would appreciate it if theater programs included a plot synopsis. It can be confusing with some shows to follow certain details, and a handy summary would be nice to have in hand.
In his Letter to the Editor (“The Other Side of the Coin”), Brian Murdock, in reacting to my column about the late Senator John McCain, writes, “Apar thinks a building in Yorktown should be named after McCain.” Nowhere in my column does it state that. I specifically cited Sen. Schumer’s efforts to have the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. re-named for the senator. Mr. Murdock also writes, “Bruce Apar states he doesn’t know of McCain’s politics...” What I did write is, “I don’t claim to be any kind of student of John McCain’s politics,” meaning I am not a disciple or advocate of his politics, far different from not being aware of his politics. In retrospect, I probably could have used a less ambiguous term than “student,” and I appreciate Mr. Murdock sharing his thoughts.