With a Name Like Urinetown, It's Gotta Be Good

“Is this really the title?” That this phrase is on promotional materials and souvenirs means a person can only be in one special location—Urinetown. Not the place, of course, the musical. This musical is a hot commodity; a placard outside the theater even proclaims it the second hottest ticket in town (after The Producers, of course). With the added support of a glowing review from the New York Times, not to mention an improbable, inspiring story of success, one enters the show with high expectations. Though the show takes a few musical numbers to navigate its exposition and find its footing, once it does, it more than fulfills those high expectations. Urinetown is a musical that grabs hold of its audience and takes nary a false step in proving itself with wit and confidence, one of the most infectious theatrical delights in recent memory.

In Urinetown, the citizens of the local town must do their private business at public bathrooms which charge a fee. As the show’s narrator explains, “That is the central conceit of the show.” It should be noted that on the word “show” he strikes the pose of a chorine delivering her big line in an old-style Follies; this sets the tone for an evening in which musical theater, particularly that which attempts a social conscience, serves as the focus of blunt, but hysterical, satire.

Of course, Urinetown does have its own social conscience—near as I could tell its underlying point has something to do with over-consumption of resources and the unsustainable lifestyle of man. And yet, the show’s point isn’t quite the point. Every plot twist is an opportunity to mock a theatrical device or style of theater. Urinetown is possessed of such charm and generates such tremendous good will that even old jokes like the deliberate misunderstanding of idiomatic language seem fresh and welcome

And when the bits are more inspired, wow. There is a death-by-falling sequence that would be tremendously clever even if it weren’t mocking falls in musicals such as Les Miserables. And all of the scenes that depict dead characters are accomplished not only with the right amount of hokey acting and writing but with a low budget effect that grows funnier each time it recurs. Like similar on-the-cheap elements in the show, it humorously riffs on the low budget nature of Urinetown while exposing the frailty of such a device when employed seriously in other musicals.

Another area in which Urinetown shines is its self-conscious narrative, principally delivered by Officer Lockstock (do you even have to ask if his partner’s name is Barrel?) and sometimes prompted by questions from Little Sally. The dialogue between the two is far funnier than it has any right to be. After a drippy and yet oddly charming love song, Little Sally muses that Hope, the female ingénue, loves her male counterpart, Bobby. “Of course, she does,” replies Officer Lockstock breaking down into tears in his best tribute to soap opera acting, before adding a second punch line with the tongue-in-cheek explanation, “he’s the hero of the play.”

As Officer Lockstock, Jeff McCarthy anchors, and just about steals, the show with his booming voice, towering presence and chameleon-like persona. In the last scene, his line reading of “Yes, Little Sally, yes it is,” left me chuckling for days. I’m laughing right now in recalling it to write this sentence.

Spencer Kayden, though, is every bit a match for McCarthy in the tricky role of Little Sally. Never excessively cutesy or annoying, she creates a performance which is not so much a literal recreation of a young girl, but a tribute to the spirit of a precocious child.

The rest of the cast is also outstanding, with special praise deserved by Hunter Foster for an unexpectedly sharp portrayal of Bobby, the male ingenue-cum-revolutionary, and the Broadway veteran Ken Jennings who is so good he deserves more stage time in the dual role of Bobby’s father and Hot Blades Harry.

Two-time Tony-winner John Cullum (best known to younger audiences for his portrayal of Holling on Northern Exposure) is a pleasant addition as the money-grubbing head of the Urine Good Company (say it aloud). Strong voiced and with excellent timing, Cullum wears the years well and can still sell a long.

And that’s what Urinetown does best of all—sell its songs. Each features pleasant music by Mark Hollman, clever lyrics from Hollman and Greg Kotis and belongs to a recognizable genre that it not only parodies, but does so in a variety of often unexpected ways, while paying a sort of tribute to that which it mocks. A song to unite and rouse unorganized rebels takes the form of a gospel revival number before morphing into a choral piece with an actor gleefully conducting all those around him. An inspirational number that later echoes it mocks not only new age mantras and liberal impracticality, but also the vocal overinflections of rhythm and blues. And a villainous character song suggests the way heads of major corporations view the world while featuring some of the funniest metaphoric imagery I’ve ever heard on stage.

If Urinetown’s score is consistently varied and rewarding, its book tends to be more hit-and-miss. Attempts at sending up old-fashioned comedy frequently fall flat. Running gags involving faxing, copying and running away to Rio succeed at recalling pre-World War II film and theater, but though they seem to attempt to derive their humor from the fact that the references aren’t as funny as the characters think they are, the result remains unfunny for the audience. Two characters related to the company, the greedy right-hand man and the corrupt politician, are recognizable stereotypes, but it seems the writing for them never made it to the next level, missing additional comic opportunity.

Yet, despite these quibbles, Urinetown is consistently funny, not only in ways that elicit immediate belly laughs, but also more thoughtful delayed laughter, as well as a lasting grin of appreciation. The entire tone of the show is refreshingly irreverent. That’s a word that’s overused and misapplied quite a bit, but perhaps no term better describes the show’s delight in exploiting all things serious in a world in which serious appears altogether too prevalent.

In The Producers, an actor muses, “Did you ever think you’d love a musical called Springtime for Hitler?” The same question has frequently been applied to Urinetown. I suppose I’m the type of person who could easily imagine himself loving a musical with such a bold title. The pleasant surprise is that not only most critics have embraced it, but so too have the audiences lining up in front of the remodeled Henry Miller Theater. Come Tony time, it will certainly receive much attention—and deservedly so.

The act two opener asks the question, “What is Urinetown?” The answer is the most entertaining show in New York, a diversion with more comic thrills than its bigger budget, star-studded rivals. Amidst glossy productions where polish sometimes obscures soul, it has an unmistakably off-Broadway spirit. It’s almost too visceral, too vibrant for a Broadway stage. And yet, there it is—filling its stage and its audience.

No one should pass up a chance to visit Urinetown. Not the place, of course, the musical.

Tags