- Pees and queues: Urinetown's rebellious poor confront Penelope Pennywise (Beth McVey, right).
Did you hear that a global water shortage has led the feds to ban private toilets? Hell, if they're going to control how consenting adults make love, why shouldn't they control our bathroom activities too? Ah, but no need to worry (yet), because this water crisis is happening in the fictional world of Urinetown, The Musical, now at the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square.
The dire drought has made peeing a controlled activity that, true to the right-wing code, has been privatized by a Halliburton-like corporation, Urine Good Company (UGC), which charges ever-increasing fees for the right to tinkle in public restrooms. This clever Malthusian conceit, by Greg Kotis (book and lyrics) and Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics), taps into a basic human need far more compelling than human rights or social freedom. Because when you gotta go, you gotta go.
Of course, basing an entire musical on the concept of folks needing to relieve their distended bladders is a tad risky. "I don't think too many people are going to come see this musical; the title's awful!" Those are the words of Little Sally (given a plucky, everywaif interpretation by Meghan Strange), as she comments on the box-office prospects of the show she's in, while she's in it. And she's not the only one who steps out of her role to make such observations. In fact, the evening begins with Officer Lockstock saying, "Welcome to Urinetown! Not the place, of course -- the musical." And even though this much-praised show carries the most cringe-inducing title in Broadway history (at least until Mucus Plug, the Musical is written), anyone who loves musical comedy, political satire, or sly parody should not piss away a chance at witnessing this clever and consistently surprising production.
Presenting a snappy, tuneful score inspired by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, informed by a litany of musicals about the downtrodden (Les Misérables, Fiddler on the Roof, Annie), and overlaid with a story of craven corporate greed, Urinetown becomes that rarest of stage delights -- a musical with a brain. The pee-prohibited rabble in the streets are constantly arguing with the keepers of the potty key: Penelope Pennywise (a fierce and intimidating Beth McVey) and her assistant, the (water)closeted idealist Bobby Strong. Meanwhile, up in the corporate suite, UGC's CEO Caldwell B. Cladwell (played with puffy pomposity by Ron Holgate) is plotting further pee-fee increases. Inevitably, Cladwell's nubile young daughter, Hope, meets Bobby, and their fates become inextricably entwined with the urgent urinary needs of their fellow citizens.
Part of what makes Urinetown so special is the irrepressible wit that permeates each scene and every song. Here's commode matron Penny singing a defense of her job with comic eloquence: "Our reservoirs have all dried up/I take my baths now in a coffee cup/I boil what's left of it for tea/And it's a privilege to pee." Even the predictable love song between Hope and Bobby is transformed into a humorous gem, as they croon about the "eight chambers of muscle to hustle/The love in our heart." And Cladwell's cautionary ballad about avoiding victimization in a country rife with social Darwinism, "Don't Be the Bunny," is so hysterical, you may turn in your seat to see who's making those weird honking guffaws, until you realize it's you.
The other part of Urinetown's excellence comes from a superb cast and inspired staging. Tom Hewitt as Officer Lockstock, chief enforcer of the anti-pee regulations, is perfectly smarmy, while Charlie Pollock and Christiane Noll nail each of their scenes as the spunky pee-for-free rebel and his sweet though feisty lovemate. In fact, the entire 16-person cast is exemplary, delivering ensemble songs with precision and executing John Carrafa's intentionally derivative choreography (here a bit of West Side Story, there a touch of Cabaret) with consummate skill and energy. The direction by John Rando is brisk, always enhancing the comedic drive of the material. And Scott Pask's heavy-metal set design of ladders and catwalks embodies the depressing world these unfortunates inhabit.
Happily, this fiercely original show saves some of its biggest surprises for the end, when conventional musical comedies often turn treacly. Have no fear, Urinetown never loses its edge. And as in any quality satire, there is a serious perspective to all the absurdity, summed up by Officer Lockstock when he asks, tongue in cheek, "Don't you think people want to be told their way of life is unsustainable?" (After which, a significant percentage of the happy audience will climb into their Suburban Assault Vehicles and burn excessive gallons of gas to get back to their overheated homes.)
The bottom line with a show called Urinetown is urethra gonna go, or you're not. But if you feel the urge, don't hold it. Go now.