Fans of Urinetown: The Musical—and I count myself as one of those fervid believers—look forward to each new production as eagerly as if they are a kid on the night before going to Disneyland (before they realize it sucks) or a 15-year-old gearing up for his first dry hump. It’s a time of frenzied expectations and deep crushes and outright giddiness.
And then you see a first act such as the one in this current show at STAGEStheatre in Fullerton, with its clunky set changes and stumbly dance numbers, performers with all the charisma of Ben Carson, and piped-in music that drowns out the few voices capable of projecting. It’s enough to make you wonder what the hell you were thinking falling for this not-so-hot mess in the first place.
Fortunately, things pick up in the second act; this Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis anti-musical is just too good to stay mediocre for too long. STAGES’ production may not be the best introduction to this incredibly witty and fun show, but even die-hard fans will walk out remembering why they fell in love.
As the name implies, Urinetown is not typical fodder for the musical stage. Set in a dystopian future (that unfortunately does not look too far-fetched) in which a drought has sucked the water table dry and one of the biggest sources of revenue is charging people to use public toilets, it’s a delirious eff-you to the traditional musical, constantly calling attention to itself, dispensing with any pretense of happy endings, and gleefully flushing anything close to good taste down the drain.
But it’s also an exceptionally well-written show, with a score that recalls everything from Guys and Dolls to the Fosse jazz hands of West Side Story. And all of it is set against the backdrop of revolutionary fervor as a ragtag group of nobodies rallies to confront the evil, Capitalistic piss-baron and his corrupt paid-for police force.
After logistical and projection problems in the first act, this Edgar Andrew Torrens-directed show rises to the occasion in the frenetic second act, as the militants, led by Bobby Strong (Brian Wiegel), scheme, kidnap and bicker their way to a volatile face-off with Caldwell B. Cladwell (a show-stealing Brian J. Cook).
It’s an enormous cast (18 actors!), and while the aforementioned Bobby is the show’s heroic protagonist, with Cladwell its antagonist, the play is really about its co-narrators: Officer Lockstock (Garrett Chandler), a bumbling, baton-wielding stooge, and Little Sally (Nicole Abarca Powell) a hyper-intelligent street urchin. These two are the meta forces at work, breaking things down for the audience while adding their own comic allusions to the proceedings. Though their relationship, or lack thereof, is central to this play (and more than a little creepy at times), Chandler and Powell lack chemistry, and rather than seeming integral to the show, their characters feel less than fully formed.
Ranging widely in skill, the ensemble are nonetheless all gung-ho, diving into the seedy sensibilities of the play. Particular standouts are Lindsey Eubanks as Bobby’s mother; Emily Curington as the pregnant Little Becky Two Shoes; and Mario Andrew Vargas Jr. as her manic mate, Hot Blades Harry, who nails the second-act showstopper “Snuff That Girl.”
First staged in 2001, the cult show became an enormous hit with three Tony Award nominations; it predated Occupy by about 10 years, but there’s a definite Occupy aroma to the festivities—and not just the lack of public toilets in each case. Gouged, taxed and dismissed by their corporate overlords and the politicians in their pocket, the people rise up to demand change and actually take over one of the main factors of production: toilets. Whereas Occupy ultimately fizzled out, though it laid seeds that are still germinating today, the poor in Urinetown actually make things worse. And even though Cladwell—as well as Cook’s bravura performance, which is equal parts Foghorn Leghorn and the old fucker in It’s a Wonderful Life—make it very easy to detest the guy, it is alluded to in the play’s end that while a greedy and merciless urine baron, he actually did some good, albeit at the expense of a great deal of human life.
But drawing any significant real-life parallels to the antics of Urinetown kind of defeats the whole satire. There are no truly good guys or girls in this show, nor any truly evil people (even though the skull-cracking cops certainly don’t seem to have a redemptive quality), and just as this show ebulliently dispenses with the happy-ever-after trope, it also sends a spike through the heart of the us-vs.-them mentality that so much highbrow—and lowbrow—literary examinations of social justice are suffused with. People are people; some of us just pee a little freer than others. That’s something to remember in Trump America 2018, which makes the offal in Urinetown seem tame in comparison.
Urinetown: The Musical at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; stagesoc.org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through May 20. $20-$22.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???