Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Coeurage Theatre Company at the Historic Lankershim Arts Center
Through December 3, & January 6 thru February 25
It is a terrible thing for a theater critic to admit, but I’d never seen this scabrously funny Tony Award-winning musical, about the price put on the most fundamental of bodily functions, before attending the Coeurage Theatre Company’s fresh and sprightly production. This is despite the fact that I went to college with the composers, Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis. I knew them reasonably well, back in the day, before I drifted along to the West Coast and they headed east. They went on to win the Tony, and I went on to scribbling reviews for Stage Raw. Ah well! As the lady says in Billy Elliot, “Best not to linger.”
In any case, this production of Urinetown was my first experience of the show. I was fully expecting a musical that would be full of daffy humor and farcical situations. What surprised me was the undercurrent of ferocious irony that flows through the work, almost like a river of golden fluid. It’s a show that is almost as angry as Brecht, and possesses a similar simplicity of presentation that belies layers of deeper meaning. The surface tone is that of a frolic, while the deeper elements are darker and more harrowing. It is a play that is seriously pissed off, pun intended.
The story takes place in the near future, in an American city which has been so afflicted by drought that it has become illegal to urinate. (On Catalina Island, which is facing a drought probably not quite as bad, the problem is addressed by using salt water in the toilets — but I suppose if they tried that here, there would be no story to speak of.)
In the story, the poorest citizens must queue to use public toilets run by a megalithic corporation with the name “Urine Good Company,” ruled by diabolical toilet magnate, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Gary Lamb). Folks who refuse to pay the urine tax are hauled off to a place called Urinetown, for exile. At one particular public privy, the people rebel, and are led to revolt by an unlikely hero: the toilet attendant, Bobby Strong (Daniel Bellusci). Meanwhile, Bobby and Cladwell’s innocent young daughter Hope (Ashley Kane) fall in love, despite the differences in their backgrounds and social class. Complications ensue when the uprising becomes a full-on war — and the true nature of Urinetown is unmasked to the public.
Director Kari Hayter’s energetic staging is a work of delightful playfulness, even as the play’s themes become more stark and terrifying. This is a musical that is hilarious on its own terms, but it also has pleasures for the scholar of theater, with its sly homage to “The Beggar’s Opera,” “Les Miserables” and “The Cradle Will Rock.” The musical numbers are full of frenetic and upbeat energy, although one can still glean their creepy underlying meaning, especially in “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” the hilarious operatic turn by Janna Cardia as the flinty, imperious Ms. Pennywise, and “Don’t Be the Bunny,” Cladwell’s goofy but terrifying defense of greed and power lust, sung by Lamb.
Gregory Nabours’ music direction is tight and wonderfully passionate, and boosted by the adrenaline-rich yet neatly controlled brashness of the ensemble, which is mostly made up of millennial performers. The energy they bring to their work crafts an irresistible sense of enthusiastic joy. The roles, of course, are living cartoons, which serves to prevent us from fully grasping the cruelty of the story until we realize, close to the end of the show, that we may have been backing the wrong horse.
Bellusci’s boyish and gleeful turn as Bobby is engagingly blithesome, and his scenes with Kane’s bubbly but beautifully tuneful Hope are highlights. Standout moments also come from the supporting performers: Ted Barton’s lusciously wicked turn as the brutal cop, Officer Lockstock, Shakil Azizi as scuzzy Senator Fipp, and Nicole Monet as quirky “Little Sally.”
All told, this is a fine thought-provoking production of a compelling musical piece.
The Historic Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through December 3 & Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. January 6 thru February 25. http://coeurage.org/urinetown. Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.