Taking the Piss

Urinetown is about the eternal verities — i.e., you're doomed

Worldwide ecological disaster has a way of changing a man. So says Caldwell B. Cladwell, and he's probably right — but not too right, because there is nothing remotely unfamiliar about the denizens of "The Poorest, Filthiest Urinal in Town," where Act I, Scene 1 of Urinetown takes place. "It's the oldest story!" they say. "Masses are oppressed! Faces, clothes, and bladders all distressed! Rich folks get the good life; poor folks get the woe! In the end, it's nothing you don't know."

The poor bastards singing these words need to take a piss, and they've got to wait in line. For 20 years the world has been in the grip of a terrible drought, and private bathrooms are now unconscionable. Every morning the city's poorest and most wretched line up here, at this dirty utility, to pay their fees to Ms. Pennywise and do their necessary. If they are unable to afford the prices dictated by Caldwell B. Cladwell's Urine Good Company, they are reduced to pissing in the street, whereupon the police cart them off to dreaded Urinetown, whence no one has ever returned.

Urinetown first appeared on Broadway in 2001, and won three Tonys in 2002 (it was nominated for seven more). It was a sensation for many reasons: the delightfully absurd title and premise, the conventionally heroic story the absurd title and premise supported, the way writers Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis twisted their conventionally heroic story into funnier and more thought-provoking theater than most writers of good-times musicals ever aspire to. There was also the good-time music itself, the way it leapt gracefully from genre to genre, and the fully fleshed characters who made it happen — plus the weird, vibrant choreography they brought to life. All of this is re-created at Actors' Playhouse, and so I'll tell you: Go see this thing. Immediately.

The Urinetown six: Franco, Ballard, Hollander, Baker, Sessions, and Jones
Alberto Romeu
The Urinetown six: Franco, Ballard, Hollander, Baker, Sessions, and Jones
Sessions and Jones: Pucker up
Alberto Romeu
Sessions and Jones: Pucker up

Details

Directed by David Arisco. Music and lyrics by Mark Hollman. Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis. With Jim Ballard, Cherilyn Franco, Rachel Jones, Tally Sessions, Gwen Hollander, Mark A. Harmon, Ken Clement, Christopher A. Kent, Sean Russell, Janet Dacal, Lissa Grossman, David Perez-Ribada, Marcus Davis, Chrissi Ardito, Damon Keith, and Allan Baker. Through November 11. Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-44-9293, www.actorsplayhouse.org.

When you do, a great many things will become apparent. The first and most obvious is that Actors' Playhouse must have busted the bank on this show. The sets are grubbily gorgeous, and the assembled talent is the finest in recent SoFla memory. Tally Sessions's Bobby Strong, the rabble-rouser who leads Urinetown's lumpen proles in rebellion against the pee patrol and the urinal-making monopoly whose interests they represent, has been blessed with a serious tenor: a big laser beam of a voice that's probably better-suited to the part than that of the role's originator, Hunter Foster. His love interest, Gwen Hollander's Hope, who also happens to be the daughter of the evil Caldwell B. Cladwell, has an instrument as meltingly gorgeous as Sessions's is powerful. Everybody else in the cast can also sing.

The supporting characters are, if anything, more compelling than the principals. It's rare to see this many people having this much fun in one place. Cherilyn Franco's precocious, bug-eyed (orphan?) girl Little Sally; Jim Ballard's weirdly paternal, truncheon-happy Officer Lockstock; Ken Clement's crooked Senator Fripp (whose persona finds the usually sonorous Clement in an endlessly amusing pinched-throat character voice) — these and a cast of 13 others, many with a bare minimum of lines or solos, create marvelously magnetic, fully realized characters, dancing like drunken zombie marionettes all the while.

Not long after the sheer awe-inspiring talent of the cast sinks in, another thing becomes obvious: The music is killer. This isn't as true of the ballads, which are too busy sticking out their tongues at the feel-good musical canon to really blow anybody away. But the syncopated, Sondheim-esque "Cop Song" (during which Ballard does a boneless little shuffle that seems to contradict a great many basic anatomical principles); the murderous "Don't Be the Bunny" (a solo from Allan Baker's "Cladwell," which really does appear to be about killing bunnies); the genuinely scary "It's a Privilege to Pee"; and several other tunes are a kind of music you have not really heard before. It's novel as all hell, in an idiom in which novelty is commonly disregarded in favor of competent revival.

Last but far from least, you'll note how familiar, how weirdly relevant all of this seems. To see human beings told that their most basic urges must be tended to within governmentally mandated guidelines; to see those who cannot comply criminalized; to see people chasing their tails, not knowing how to respond; to find the whole thing funny — this might or might not be the situation in our world, but even if it's not, our world very often feels this way. There are few pleasures greater than seeing one's deepest uneasinesses about the universe publicly confronted with song, good humor, and applause.

For all of that, though, as Officer Lockstock explains early in the performance, "this is not a happy musical" — not only because of Urinetown's retinue of soulless corporate greedheads, evil cops, and ecological catastrophes, but also because of the very glib things it has to say about the probable outcome of political action motivated by good intentions. Despite the elimination of Cladwell and the victory of the rebellion, life refuses to go smoothly for those who hang out at the Poorest, Filthiest Urinal in Town. They would appear to be doomed to death by dehydration in the unrelenting drought. And so Urinetown is a musical about well-intentioned people who depose a tyrant, force their utopian vision on a world they don't understand, and fuck up that world in the process. This from a show that was originally slated to open September 13, 2001, and was written long before a single 21st-century American soldier set foot on Iraqi soil. Which doesn't make Urinetown a prophecy. It simply means, comedy or no, Urinetown is about the eternal verities. As the cast sings at one time or another, "This is Urinetown," and you want to sing along — whether because the music is so fine or because it is true, it's difficult to tell.

 
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