Melissa Reinertson, Max Bennett-Parker, Ron Johnson Jr. & Nathaniel Rothrock; photo by rr jones
By Don Adkins
Who wouldn’t go to a musical comedy that includes a great cast, good tunes, excellent pit band, effective technical elements, plus creative direction and choreography? And what if the show’s topics were also extremely contemporary: corporate greed and immorality, political corruption, personal freedom, and the necessity of sufficient and clean water supplies? Throw in an idealistic and cute romantic couple, a spunky street kid, and a cop who manages to be charming while doing despicable things. And then call it… Urinetown.
Spunky Little Sally tells us “a bad title could kill a show pretty good” and also observes “the music is happy but the title is awful.” So, let’s deal with the reason for the title. Urinetown is the ominous place in the musical where lawbreakers are sent never to return. It is called Urinetown because most offenders have broken the law, passed by bribed politicians, by not using the for-pay “amenity stations.” The evil corporation, Urine Good Company, has a monopoly on everyone’s bladders which is especially odious when it comes to taking money from the poorest people. Because of this law, the existence of The Poor is centered on finding enough money just to do something we all take for granted.
Urinetown (“the musical” as Officer Lockstock constantly reminds us) is both unique and representative of many theatrical traditions. A couple that come to mind immediately are the plays by Bertolt Brecht and the depression-era musical The Cradle Will Rock. The names of some of the characters recall these traditions: Officers Lockstock and Barrel (Max Bennett-Parker and Kevin Johnston), Bobby Strong (Nathaniel Rothrock), Hope Cladwell (Melissa Reinertson), Penelope Pennywise (Nancy Williams) and The Poor (ensemble). A wide variety of musical styles pay tribute to many different shows. Choreography and staging sometimes evoke such musicals as Fiddler On the Roof, Les Miserables and West Side Story.
The theme of personal freedom is central to the plot. In this show people are told that they should be “free to pee.” Bobby and Hope tell us that peace, joy, justice and plenty of water are what really matter. The problem in their circumstance is that a long drought has allowed the UGC corporation (“we have your best interests at heart”) to claw its way into a central position of social, economic and political power. This corporate exploitation is a message that we frequently hear but often choose to ignore if we are not directly affected. Urinetown forces us to confront the problem by creating a farcical situation that we can all relate to, regardless of our social or economic status, especially when we need to go.
As you enter the theater The Poor are already on stage. They obviously had to pee (you quickly got used to hearing that word) and the result is that audience members begin questioning the status of their bladders before the show even begins. (On opening night, audiences who know the show threw coins on stage to help The Poor afford the amenities.) The improvised dialogue and action that followed was extremely effective in removing the invisible barrier between the audience and the cast before the show ever started. The five members of the outstanding pit band, inmates in plaid shirts under the solid leadership of Michael McGushin, were escorted to their places in front of the stage signaling the official start of the show.
The lead characters were, as we expect from Cabrillo Stage performances, experienced and talented. Acting, singing and movement skills were high quality. Creative staging by Andrew Ceglio and choreography by Ashley Little made all of the action easy to follow and highlighted both the comedy and the serious points. The feature of the evening, however, was the ensemble as The Poor. They were involved in a majority of the scenes in this show. They began with a couple of strong numbers, but the end of Act I kicked them into high gear, giving the show a momentum that made you want to cut the intermission short and get back in your seat. Act II began with three more big production numbers that were even more amazing. Acting, choreography and a couple of a cappella choruses were done with such skill and joy that it was hard to imagine another production with a better ensemble.
It is also difficult to point out individual performers; every person on stage created a character that was interesting and fully invested in his/her surroundings (we never heard the actual name of the town). The quality of the musical and technical aspects always contributed to the overall effect. The biggest selling point of this show was the positive vibe that everyone brought to their performance. They were having so much fun depicting misery, heroism, greed, joy, anger and hope that the energy coming off the stage made you feel the true power of theater to move people. Standing ovations now seem to be normal. This show deserved it because of every cast member’s commitment to what they were doing. If you enjoy musicals, you need to see this one. As the cast encouraged us: “Go to Urinetown (the musical)!”