Reviewer: Lisa Purchase Kelly
Venue: Malcolm Field Theatre
“You our humble audience,
You have come to see
What it’s like when people can’t pee free.
First act lasts an hour,
Don’t assume you’re fine,
Best go now,
There often is a line.”
— Urinetown, The Musical
Arriving at SVSU’s Malcom Theater, approaching audience is greeted by sarcastic brown-coated police officers, a slightly runny set, and a “splash-zone” of sorts cordoned off at the front of the theater. The scene is set for the quirky dystopian blockbuster Urinetown (written by Mark Hollman & Greg Kotis, directed by Tommy Wedge, and choreographed by Peggy Mead-Finizio).
People start revolutions because they want something that authorities are controlling.
In this case, Urine Good Company mega-corporation controls the toilets, and young Bobby Strong (played by SVSU freshman Noah Johnson) just wants to pee for free. After a drought depletes the water supply, private toilets are outlawed and a corporation takes over, charging people to use the only approved restrooms and making sure the police crack down on any unauthorized public peeing. When Bobby’s dad can’t pay to pee and ends up on the streets, he is arrested and hauled off to the mysterious Urinetown, from which no one ever returns.
With some helpful tongue-in-cheek narration by Officer Lockstock (played by Scout McColloch) and the delightfully sassy Little Sally (played by Jenna Glazier), the show gets right into it with the spectacular production number “Urinetown”. It was most invigorating to be confronted with 25 cast members absolutely belting out layered harmonies, dancing on three levels of a big beautifully-lit set. It was a showstopper, and the show had only just begun. It was wonderful to be swept away by the magnitude and energy of a big Broadway musical once again.
In the midst of this dingy stage full of filthy malcontents arrives a perky peach, a clean and brightly clad college graduate with “a head filled with the best stuff money can buy,” (which apparently is next to nothing). She’s Hope Cladwell (payed by fourth-year Music and Theatre SVSU senior Lexie Schultz), the wide-eyed daughter of Caldwell B. Cladwell (played by SVSU freshman Lucas Whitlock), the arch-evil head of the corporation. Cue the star-crossed lovers, revolution, kidnapping, betrayal, and a “secret hideout”, all delightfully embedded in magnificent song-and-dance numbers.
Urinetown is a madcap meta-musical of well-known styles, both poking fun at and honoring the best of Broadway. When toilet-boss Penelope Pennywise (played by professional actor and current SVSU student Megan Meyer) sings “A Privilege to Pee”, it immediately calls to mind Mama Morton’s “When You’re Good to Mommma” from Chicago, with a sassy strong-arm style: “If you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go through me.” The Act I Finale is a send-up of Les Mis; the beginning of Act II references Fiddler on the Roof. If you think you’ve heard this song before, you’re probably partly right.
“It was a freak-show of a musical, a Frankenstein’s monster best kept in the basement. We didn’t expect anyone but a few friends would see it,” wrote Kotis. Born at a Fringe Festival by way of Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Malthus, Urinetown landed on Broadway and won 3 Tonys in 2002. It has since trickled out into the local theater world, appearing as a surprising staple in schools and community theaters.
At first glance it’s like comic book come to life. It’s cheeky! It’s fun! It’s … dystopian! … in a little too-close-to-home way. If you squint at it just right, it’s just an energetic romp. The singing is really gorgeous in this production; the choreography is spot-on; the jokes are corny and funny. FUN!
But it you actually open your eyes and look at it, it gets disturbing pretty quickly. Who’s the good guys? There aren’t really any! Happy ending? Not a chance! And while the premise is absurd (illegal toilets!), the underlying dystopia of drought is a little more realistic than we might be comfortable with. While you’re clapping along with the peppy music, you’re also going to have to think, to consider these characters and their actions, and your possible stance in all of it. Who do we root for when everybody’s wrong, and nobody’s winning? When the best “solution” looks just as bad as the problem? As the best theatre strives to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable,” this work counts among the best … it walks the fine line between spectacular and humorous entertainment and thoughtful social commentary, and allows you to thoroughly enjoy yourself without getting too comfortable.. Silly never seemed so serious.
All of the actors mentioned about gave stellar performances, and with never a dull moment, the direction by Tommy Wedge and choreography by Peggy Mead-Finizio are top-notch. The vocals (coached by Jim Hohmeyer and Sherri Angelotti) are truly outstanding, and the music (directed by Dr. Norman Wika) provided the perfect platform for those beautiful vocal harmonies. The set by Jerry Dennis is (as always) exemplary and the costumes by Leah Kaliszewski were disgusting, perfectly disgusting. It was pointed out to me (by Director Tommy Wedge) that SVSU’s productions are increasingly student-led, meaning the faculty supervises and assists, but the students themselves run the show. “Peggy advises student designers, I advise student management, and they take it from there. It’s a faculty supported program but the students are our engine.” To that end I want to also compliment the work of Assistant Director Abbey Kuhns, Assistant Choreographer Zoe Gilbert, Production Assistant Drea Brown, and the many other students who are driving these productions. I am impressed with everything I’ve seen here lately, and if this work is coming from well-advised student choices, our theatrical future is going to be in good hands indeed. I’m officially a fan, and I’ll make every effort to keep coming to SVSU’s shows if this is the caliber work we can come to expect here.
“Urinetown” at SVSU runs Wednesday April 12 through Saturday April 15 with showtimes at 7:30, and Sunday April 16 at 3:00. Due to some mature subject matter, recommended age is 12+.
Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online or in person at the Box Office one hour before curtain. I highly recommend you go get one.