Urinetown: The Musical satirically and hilariously poses the question: what would it be like if water supplies became so scarce that people, including the poor, had to a pay a fee to pee? All bets are off, because the results are cleverly charming. Featuring animated music by Mark Hollmann, acerbic lyrics by Hollmann and Greg Kotis, and a biting book by Kotis, the Heritage Players’ production of this splendid spoof of Broadway message musicals about the evils of capitalism is a big hit, thanks to snappy staging by Director Stephen Michael Deininger and Assistant Director and Stage Manager, Kathy McRory; devilishly fun choreography by Katie Sheldon; convincing costuming by Robin Trenner; crisp comic characterizations and vibrant vocals by a strong musical ensemble, and exuberant accompaniment by Musical Director Andrew Worthington, alongside a peppy pit band that keeps everyone engaged. Together, the stellar cast, crew and musicians had last Friday’s opening-night audience cheering and chuckling enthusiastically during virtually every number.
A gleeful parody of other tune-and-toe shows, ranging from Evita and Les Miserables to Chicago and West Side Story, the 2001 satirical musical had its start at the New York Fringe Festival, then moved to off-Broadway, eventually arriving on Broadway, where it ran for three years and almost 1,000 performances, earning 10 Tony Award nominations, and 3 wins. Richly entertaining, Urinetown is a sharp show that both makes fun of musical conventions and employs them for all they are worth.
The action is set in a dystopian future when 20 years of drought have led to the banning of private toilet facilities. Instead, everyone has to pay a hefty price to use the bathroom. A crooked Caldwell B. Cladwell (John Sheldon) controls the racket as the evil president and owner of the “Urine Good Company”, and has both the police and the politicians in his pocket. Mr. Cladwell is eventually resisted by the young hero, Bobby Strong (Tommy Malek), assistant custodian at the poorest urinal in town, who falls in love with Mr. Cladwell’s daughter, Hope (Aimee Lambing) and, ultimately, leads a rebellion against the system.
What makes this quirky tale special is mixed throughout the looming pessimism about the survival of mankind are great jokes and constant comical commentary on musicals themselves, conducted by a dutiful, hard-boiled cop who debate the niceties of musical theater with a spirited and endearing street urchin, resembling a young Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.
Narrated by Officer Lockstock (Ryan Geiger) and Little Sally (Katie Dickson), both seem meta-conscious of the production’s potential problems, commenting on the “terrible title,” the unpleasant premise and even the audience’s presumed desire to leave early. Along the way, we get micro-spoofs of everything from the “Thriller” video to familiar films scenes from iconic movies such as Titanic and Fatal Attraction.
All this may sound ill-conceived and far-fetched, but the musical actually works superbly. The pastiche is abundantly engrossing and Stephen Michael Deininger’s production, with an ingenious split-level lavatorial design by Ryan Geiger that you can almost smell, has great pace and punch and discovers all the dark humor of the piece.
Tommy Malek and Aimee Lambing make a great hero and heroine: both have stirring vocal range (as highlighted in Act One, Scene Four’s “Follow Your Heart”), and seem to perfectly understand, and dive headfirst, into the musical’s unusual tongue-in-cheek tone. Malek charismatically channels his inner Gospel choir conductor-like persona in Act Two’s “Run, Freedom, Run!” performance, demonstrating his solid stage presence and robust singing voice. Lambing shines in the final musical number, “I See a River”, unleashing Hope’s vigor and intensity.
Ryan Geiger, as the show’s wry narrator and as the corrupt cop Officer Lockstock, is terrific. He cleverly steps out of character at various times to address the audience. His partner in crime, Dave Hill as Officer Barrel, works cohesively with Geiger in a vaudevillian display in several scenes, and his character stuns the audience with a secret late in the show.
Likewise, Amy E. Haynes is superb as Penelope Pennywise, the no-nonsense, jaded warden at one of the urinals, who undergoes a profound transformation. Haynes displays tremendous talent, both in her acting and singing, as featured in Act One’s “It’s a Privilege to Pee” scene – with her flaming red hair and fierce bravura, she is a powerhouse all around. Most members of the strong ensemble cast take on multiple roles, to amusing effect. David Hale, as Mr. McQueen (Mr. Cladwell’s yes man) and Humping Howard, is absolutely hilarious in “Don’t Be the Bunny.” Surprisingly, in the end, the show even manages to encompass some serious themes about ecological disaster, human nature, greed and capitalism.
Keeping the audience on its toes and finger snapping along, Heritage Players’ Urinetown commendably catapults comedic romping to an innovative frontier, delightfully springing surprises to the end, and rigorously eschews the sentimental happy ending the cunning story line seems to be promising.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.
Urinetown plays through November 23, 2014 at The Heritage Players performing at the Rice Auditorium – at Spring Grove Hospital Center- 55 Wade Avenue, Catonsville, MD. Tickets may be purchased online, or at the door.