For audiences with a special loathing for the Broadway Musical, from its clichéd plots and characters to its nauseatingly treacly music, Urinetown: The Musical has been an oasis. It is a virtual encyclopedia of everything we hate about Broadway, and it’s packaged and presented in all the mock-earnestness that satire demands.
How ironic, then, that in the 13 years since its debut Urinetown has now become the go-to show for High School thespian troupes and University theatre departments alike. Where did we go wrong? Has the show lost its bite? Is the Broadway behemoth so humongous that it devours even its enemies and spits them out tame?
It was great fun…
The question becomes more urgent when we consider the show’s pedigree: you see Greg Kotis, who created Urinetown, is one of the original members of the Neofuturists. A company based in Chicago, the Neofuturists are a band of merry avant-garde pranksters who have developed a huge cult following with their long-running, constantly changing hit show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can go to Chicago (or New York now) or wait until it touches down again at Woolly Mammoth (in the meantime, check out their homepage.
The Neos specialize in the concept of the disposable play—something taken directly from life, refracted in curious ways, and then pushed out in front of an audience, briefly but brilliantly. Because all Neo shows come complete with a “sell by” date, and because weekly replacement of the repertoire has been one of their founding principles, it seems incredibly strange to find a script by a Neofuturist that is now deemed a classic and is faithfully reproduced over and over again nationwide.
Mind you, I’m sure Kotis and his partner-in-crime Mark Hollmann don’t mind the royalty checks one bit; but for people who know Kotis’ roots, it’s hard to reconcile. Can’t he and Holmann come up with some way for future productions to mess with things a bit? Create new routines, cheesy numbers, new plot twists? (sigh). I mean, if they don’t, this great anti-Broadway show becomes the very thing it detests.
Anyway, the Theatre and Dance faculty at George Washington University (or, as it now advertises itself, THE George Washington University) staged a faithful reproduction of said show this past weekend. Director Muriel Von Villas has assembled the appropriate motley crew, and clearly appreciates the spirit in which Kotis wrote the show. It was great fun, and since I brought along my son as a test audience (he, thankfully, shares my dim view of Broadway), I can attest that it was a hit for younger audiences who would normally avoid anything remotely ‘Musical’.
This being a university production the performance quality varied, but the main roles were well done. Kevin Frey gives us a solid Officer Lockstock, the avuncular, highly ironic guide to the show and its ridiculous story line; and Lockstock’s sidekick, Officer Barrel (you see where this is headed already, don’t you) is given a good turn by Ms. Madison Awalt.
The cockeyed world of the play, in which a water shortage has forced the entire town to use pay toilets exclusively for every call of nature, is also seen through the eyes of the stereotypical young innocent Little Sally—performed here with a pitch-perfect, cloying, girly voice by Annie Ottati. Ottati trails Frey throughout the show, commenting not only on the plot but on the poor prospects the show has for any success. Meanwhile Shira Hereld is an effective Penelope Pennywise, the restroom manager who (of course) refuses to grant entry into the stalls unless you’ve got the cash.
Times are hard, and Pennywise’s assistant, Bobby Strong, is forced to watch helplessly as his own father Old Man Strong (Colton Timmerman) is packed off by the police for the crime of, um, doing what comes naturally when you don’t have the money (Timmerman has entirely too much fun with this). Bobby’s response to his dad’s arrest? To start a revolution, natch, and of course this requires a lot of singing and dancing. Andy Lieberman has the pluck and stage presence required for Bobby, and he literally stops the show (in typical Broadway star fashion) by insisting on an extended ovation after his “big number” – to hilarious effect. As Hope Cladwell, Bobby’s romantic interest—can’t have a show without a romantic interest, can we?—Lindsay Martin is Brilliant. She has all the annoying doe-eyed optimism required for the part, and her musical chops add a lot to the role as well.
Per Kotis’ instructions, the dance performances were all over the map—he specifically requests that non-dancers do all the routines too, to maintain Urinetown‘s anti-musical cred. Choreographer Stefan Sittig takes this concept and nails it, making sure that nearly every chorus-line and interpretive-dance trope imaginable comes in for some grief. Kirk Kristlibas creates a gorgeously rusty neo-constructivist set, all rust and railings, which conveniently morphs into ramparts for an outrageous send-up of Les Misérables (the uprising is fought with TP rolls, of course). Carl Gudenius’s lights are likewise done with a dose of humor, and it’s great to see a show for once where light cues get their own laughs. Reema F. Al-Bawardy has assembled an appropriately wide array of costume options, which for this show are many because the ensemble changes character with amazing frequency.
The occasional glitch is inevitable, however; and in this case it highlights an alarming tendency which I hope can be nipped before too long—although I’m not holding my breath. Every cast member was miked, and the wiring was spotty and the sound system was so poorly managed it created marked imbalances in volume between chorus and soloist, rendering key passages and lyrics incomprehensible. And when the mikes didn’t work at all, it brought home the fact that these performance majors were being trained, in effect, to use their normal voices on-stage.
Here lies the point: although “inside voice” is perfect for film and voice-over work, it is a tremendous disservice to these students to mike them in large venues, because it creates the absurd expectation that they can have a professional stage career without developing serious vocal chops. I’m at the opposite end of the political spectrum from David Mamet in just about every way, but I am so with him on this: if you can’t fill the room with your voice, just your voice, you’re not a stage actor. Granted there’s lots you can do with normal speech, and these days you can have a lucrative career without ever rising above a whisper. But without training in voice projection your prospects for the big stage roles are dim; worse, you will not gain the respect from peers that everyone aspires to. If the acoustics at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre are the issue, fine; limit the seating, bring audiences down front, but whatever you do make sure students learn the importance of filling as much of the room as possible.
Urinetown is, alas, a classic musical. It’s positively surreal to see it given the Broadway treatment; but at least the GWU production reminds us why, in spite of itself, it richly deserves revival after revival.
Running Time: Two hours with no intermission.
Urinetown played its final performance on November 2, 2014 at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, 800 21st Street NW, Washington DC. For more information about GWU’s Department of Theatre, click here.