Not for the caffeine-addicted or the faint-of-sphincter, “Urinetown” drives its audience to combustive laughter with incessant allusions to watery relief. As the Dramat’s fall mainstage production at the University Theater, this musical is entertaining in its superficiality and only falters when it aspires to be something more sophisticated than what it is — satirical fluff.
“Urinetown” is set in a city full of oppression and suppressed urination. Because of a severe drought, the government outlaws private toilets in order to preserve water. The corrupt and monopolistic Urine Good Company regulates the toilets and charges an exorbitant fee that many of the city’s poor cannot afford. When Bobby Strong’s (Sam Bolen ’10) father is banished to “Urinetown,” a semi-mythical prison for sanitary criminals, he is inspired to lead a revolt against the city’s oppressors and to lead the people to a new world in which everyone has the right to pee.
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An overtly sexual Chad Callaghan ’07 opens the show as Officer Lockstock, Urinetown’s omniscient and malicious narrator. His monologues, accompanied by punctuating hip thrusts that may or may not indicate sexual ambiguities in his speech, reflect a comically sadistic view of the play’s events. His maniacal expression and fascist voice, which consistently jumps to a wild falsetto at the mention of “Urinetown,” complete a physical bearing that impossibly combines a dancer’s androgynous fluidity and the stiffness appropriate to an officer of the law. Though Bolen and Felicia Ricci ’08 as Penelope Pennywise are the vocal giants of the production, Callaghan is unmatched in terms of physical comedy.
The members of the small ensemble act with a martyrish fervor, hurling themselves into wild, flailing stage slides, tangling their limbs at impossible angles before fluidly recovering into an end-of-number tableau. Their suicidal energy is complemented by the production’s ingenious direction by Dana Harrel, evident in its painful attention to details like the toilet-brush halo raised above Ricci’s head in the second number. When Max Broude ’07 as Caldwell B. Cladwell mentions “the most expensive university in the world,” the cast’s reaction is audience-appropriate. Scene changes are executed without breaking the continuity of action and character: When Hope Cladwell (Sarah Minkus ’08), who is tied to a chair, needs to be moved offstage, an ensemble member lifts her on to a dolly and rolls her off-stage.
Typical of absurdist musical theater, “Urinetown” fully exploits the Broadway canon. The scenery resembles a hackneyed version of New York in “West Side Story,” and an early dialogue between Hope and Bobby irreverently echoes the exchange between Tony and Maria. When the amenity revolution begins, a mop replaces the waving white flag of “Les Miserables.” The meta-theatrical narrator continually points out the subtleties of the musical in which he also plays a major part. Though this type of parody has become somewhat stale in modern theater, the cast pulls it off gracefully; in the context of “Urinetown,” this theatrical satire seems fresh even to a drama gourmand.
The plot, which climbs to astounding heights of absurdity by the end of the first act, suddenly plummets after intermission. The second act simply cannot live up to the show’s frequent references to an impending revelation about the mythical “Urinetown.” “Urinetown” suffers the same fate as many dramatic pieces based on ridiculous premises: Though the plot initially shocks its audience into wild approval, the script has no bounds and no foundation and either explodes into the disturbing realm of the impossibly grotesque or collapses in an attempt to recover some sort of substance.
“Urinetown” attempts the latter and fails nobly. With the death of a character, the plot becomes suddenly dark, but the effect is artificial, as if the writers threw this in as an afterthought. Its context does not allow it to take on the reasonable emotional power one would expect from dark comedy, if that is the genre “Urinetown” aspires to emulate. It is as if John Cleese tried to make tragedy from a Monty Python sketch; such a juxtaposition is nonsensical. So the second act suffers, though the actors continue to pull off their material as beautifully and energetically as circumstances allow.
Even though the musical strives to transcend its sanitary foundations, it’s still called “Urinetown.” Though it fails to achieve a deeper meaning, it should be appreciated as a success of pure entertainment. Sore ribs and a renewed gratitude for the privilege to pee are its lasting rewards.