Would anyone go see a play titled Urinetown?
Well, Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Urinetown: The Musical drew a nearly full house on opening night. Laughter and spontaneous applause began shortly after the stage lights rose and continued until they went dark — followed by a rousing standing ovation.
So, the answer is yes.
And my advice is don’t just go, but run to this production as you would to the nearest airport bathroom after holding your water through a four-hour flight.
This is a four-star production of an enormously entertaining musical. The production succeeds not only because of the clever book and score, but also the inspired staging and a stellar ensemble of actors/singers with the instincts of stand-up comedians.
Although it debuted in 2001 on Broadway, where it won three Tony awards, Urinetown has become more relevant over time. The narrative resembles Animal Farm, George Orwell’s allegorical critique of Russian communism (which was staged by the Milwaukee Rep earlier this season): When the masses hand over their labor and resources to an elite class, the inevitable results are greed, corruption and enslavement.
But while Animal Farm is ponderous and powerful, Urinetown takes the same themes to vaudeville.
The show is set in an apocalyptic future where years of environmental recklessness have led to a 20-year drought. Water has become so scarce that home toilets have been outlawed.
Peeing is no longer a human right but a privilege. People must pay to do their private business in public for-profit “amenities.” Peeing anywhere else — outdoors or in jars — can be a hanging offense.
As the play opens, a menacing character named Officer Lockstock introduces himself as the play’s narrator. He sets the tone and, in an overly dramatic style, cautions the audience about what they’re about to witness.
In Rick Pendzich’s praiseworthy portrayal, Lockstock is like a John Waters version of Our Town’s Stage Manager. His corny narration, styled after the narrators of classic radio suspense shows, is funny in itself, and Pendzich’s sardonically authoritarian take on the character makes the most of it. Pendzich also shows off his rich bass in several musical numbers, and he’s essential to the cast’s musical harmonizing.
Greg Kotis, who wrote the book and lyrics, presents a lot of the exposition in Lockstock’s answers to questions posed by Little Sally, a mash-up of the stereotypical street urchin and the town seer. Kaylee Annable has found just the right body language and voice for the part, and she deftly stays vocally grounded in her character during the musical numbers.
The action begins in front of Public Amenity No. 9, located on an indeterminate skid row and run by the ruthless Penelope Pennywise. Local denizens are lined up and waiting for the facility to open.
As Pennywise, Amber Smith is a standout, both comically and vocally. She’s unrepentantly gifted at mugging — Lucille Ball would be envious.
Cash pouring in from the toilets flows directly into the coffers of Urine Good Company, or UGC, a mega-corporation that maintains a monopoly over the whiz biz by bribing lawmakers and the police. The maniacally greedy CEO Caldwell B. Cladwell runs the operation, with the assistance of a gaggle of back-stabbing sycophants. UGC’s resemblance to the current White House is so spot on that it almost isn’t funny.
As the snarky Cladwell, Steven M. Koehler is every televangelist-coifed CEO who’s ever appeared on Fox Business rolled into one — and he can sing as well as he dissembles.
Cladwell’s beautiful daughter Hope — the magnificently gifted singer Rachel Zientek — unwittingly sets off an uprising when she and Pennywise’s assistant Bobby Strong fall in love during a clichéd musical number that riffs on the fire-escape love scene in West Side Story.
Zientek is spot-on as the soprano ingénue, and Lucas Pastrana, who plays Bobby, matches her with an indefatigable voice. It’s rare to see a performer as young as Pastrana command the stage with such confident presence. He also manages to project glimpses of authentic emotion without losing his comedic grounding.
As the characters’ names suggest, they are send-ups of theatrical stereotypes. The dialogue is what you’d find in cringe-worthy, second-rate melodramas, and accordingly the presentation is over the top.
In fact, the style here is so broad that the play’s profound themes are buried in wackiness, and its socio-political critique might not hit you until after leaving the theater. When you do connect the dots between Urinetown and today’s America, the parallels will amaze you. It’s almost eerie.
Director Ray Jivoff makes a disciplined ensemble of the large cast and mines the play’s whip-smart satire for all it’s worth. The ensemble comes off like a seasoned comedy troupe that’s been working together for years.
Brandon Kirkham’s set design, which transitions easily between skid row and Caldwell’s executive office, makes the most of Skylight’s small stage. Astute costume design by Karin Simonson Kopischke underscores each character’s traits and enhances the production's ambience.
Urinetown's elaborate musical numbers are icing on the cake. Many of them are spoofs of other Broadway shows, and if you’re a theater enthusiast, you’ll have fun guessing which shows are being parodied in which numbers.
Ryan Cappleman’s inventive choreography razzle-dazzles us with moves suitable for professional and non-professional dancers alike. His elaborate send-up of the wedding scene from Fiddler on the Roof is a showstopper.
For me, after a day that was dominated by news of yet another mass school shooting, it was a relief to be so thoroughly amused by a production that snatches laughter from the jaws of grim reality. Toward the end of the show, when Lockstock references a pee-soaked night in a Moscow hotel, I felt revived.
For a preview, click Urinetown: The Musical.
Urinetown: The Musical continues at Skylight Music Theatre through June 10. For more, visit Skylight's website.