Urinetown the Musical
Presented by New Haven Theatre Company through May 19 at 118 Court St., New Haven. http://www.newhaventheatercompany.com/
Music asnd lyrics by Mark Hollman. Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis. Directed by Hallie Martenson. Produced by Steve Scarpa. Musical Director: Megan Keith Chenot. Choreographer: Jenny Schuck. Stage Manager: Jeannette McDunnah. Assistant Stage Manager: Ben Michalak. Cast: Peter Chenot (Bobby Strong), Megan Chenot (Hope Cladwell), Jeremy Funke (Officer Lockstock), Sabrina Kershaw (Penelope Pennywise), Hillary Brown (Little Sally), George Kulp (Caldwell B. Cladwell), Erich Greene (Senator Fipp), Ralph Buonocore (Mr. McQueen), Officer Barrel (Steve Scarpa), Ben Michaelak (Tiny Tom), Bryuan Kearny (Robby the Stockfish/Cop), Catie Pacileo (Soupy Sue/Cop), James Leaf (Hot Blades Harry), Jessica Meyers (Little Becky Two-Shoes), John Watson (Old Man Strong), Margaret Mann (Josephine Strong), Josie Kulp (Miss Millennium/Cop).
Nice to see how neatly Urinetown has trickled down (to coin a phrase) from the arch, grandiose Brechtian staging of its original New York production—and the even grander archness of its first national tour, one of the oddest fits ever attempted at the Oakdale Theatre’s old Broadway series—to bare spaces, calmer voices and unbrassy arrangements. New Haven Theatre Company, a company I admire for its ensemble ability to take on new challenges whilst still acknowledging its natural limitations—has never done a musical (at least in this configuration of the company, which stretches back close to 20 years and several distinct regimes); given that they haven’t, it’s rather incredible how well the troupe’s familiar key members all can sing.
Married actors Peter and Megan Chenot, co-star as Bobby Strong (the activist who fights for public rest rooms to be free, after his father is sent to the fabled Urinetown for inability to pay to pee) and Hope Cladwell (rebellious, if still sweet-natured, daughter of the ruthless industrialist Caldwell B. Cladwell). They are believably in love, and harmonize neatly. As Hope’s dirtbag dad, George Kulp nails his charmingly cruel patter songs. Every member of the cast mines special details about the characters and exploits them. There’s a richness here that removes Urinetown from its political-cartoon origins and proves its worth as a well-rounded theater piece.
The company falls into the form as comfortably as they did for the agitprop drama Waiting for Lefty (a jumping-off point stylistically for this equally strident, if less earnest current project) or the more modernist Glengarry Glen Ross or the differently madcapped Steve Martin comedy Picasso in the Lapin Agile.
What connects all these shows is NHTC’s antic ensemble energy. Unlike a lot of community-based theaters, New Haven Theatre Company doesn’t try to ape a show’s best-known style; the show’s carefully rethought for the available talents and resources. Thus Glengarry became atypically brisk and comic, Picasso less filmic and declaratory, Waiting for Lefty less… lefty?
“When you’re doing theater in a space as intimate as 118 Court Street,” Urinetown’s director Hallie Martenson told me, “it’s going to change.” Almost nobody in the company, including Martenson, had seen Urinetown before, and indeed the show’s had something of a lull since a spate of regional productions following its 001 Broadway acclaim, and an even bigger burst of productions when the rights trickled down to colleges eight or nine years ago.
“The great thing about this play,” Martenson says, “is that it’s not just rich people and poor people. Everybody has a name. You can make a character yours. We’re having a lot of fun.”
This Urinetown is more personal, more personable, than a lot of productions which play on the faceless alienist dramatic Brechtian pastiche of the show. NHTC doesn’t lose that theme—though a two-man band keyboard-and-drum orchestra, however good, can’t bring the brass and pomp which is part and parcel of the Weill style being parodied in the score. The company just allows itself more to play with. Political theater is mocked (and honored—Martenson refused to double-cast anyone playing a rich person as a poor one and vice versa, subliminally underscoring the class divides in the piece), but so is overemotional melodrama and American Idol overkill (courtesy of the impressive pipes of Penelope Pennywise, given flash and verve by the dynamic Sabrina Kershaw) and improv-sketch frivolity.
In any case, it’s crucial that, as Martenson puts it, the show “just cooks along. This is not a play that gives itself to lengthy exposition.” Quite the contrary—the narrator figure, Officer Lockstock, continually dashes hopes for a conventional plot by explaining the conventions more than he does the plot. Jeremy Funke gives the role nonchalant menace, loosening the tightly wound, angular and inhuman style associated with Jeff McCarthy, who originated the role (or Tom Hewitt, or continued that style on tour).
I’ve always admired Urinetown for having the courage of its comic convictions. It lampoons its own format, yet respects the need for a longform musical to HAVE a format. It stays funny from beginning to end yet allows for the sort of gentle coming-together tune (“I See a River”) the audience begins to crave. In that respect, it’s like Hair—chaotic and brutal, yet not afraid to be beautiful.
This is a Urinetown which gets ALL the jokes, and scales them to where they’re funny to intimate audiences. It’s one where the closing full-cast cry of “Hail Malthus!” is clearly hard, and makes you want to go home and read up on Robert Thomas Malthus’ theories of population growth and economic/environmental stability. It’s one which lives up to the concept that freedom is scary.
Quirky rather than a boisterous, a hipster joke rather than a political cartoon, raw in all the best ways (from the unpredictability of the performances to the natural echo of the big bare 118 Court Street storefront), this is a Urinetown for New Haven. You can see why New Haven Theatre Company was moved to settle there.
Prognosticators sometimes write about the future threat of world-wide drought. But how often does anyone speculate about the fate of private toilet facilities in such a world? Urinetown, Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis, Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann, dramatizes, in comic, cartoonish fashion, that very situation. In the world it depicts, human waste elimination is permitted only in public facilities, run by a ruthless corporation, UGC, and everyone must pay for the privilege to pee. Then along comes trouble, trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for . . . pee.
As staged by the New Haven Theater Company in their performance space on Court Street, the Tony-Award-winning Urinetown is lively grassroots theater, a showcase that allows the entire company—expanded with some new recruits to achieve a cast of 17—to show off singing voices and dance moves and comic timing we didn’t even know they had. The company has always shown a strong propensity for ensemble work, but what they’ve achieved this time may surprise—and should certainly delight—their audience.
The musical itself, which has been popular since its Off-Broadway debut in 2001, around the time of 9/11, isn’t just romantic silliness, as so many musicals are, but has points to score, in rather broad fashion, against unsustainable lifestyles, corporate malfeasance, political chicanery, greed, totalitarian laws, and even the limits of heroism. In other words, it’s a play that, like NHTC’s Waiting for Lefty last winter, has the kind of timeliness that should only add to its popularity.
Another strength of the play itself is its ability to provide songs that have immediate access as “show tunes.” Hollmann and Kotis have created a great pastiche, recalling any number of other musicals and commenting upon the very business of musical theater, and of self-conscious, avant-garde touches, through the use of one of those stock narrators (Jeremy Funke) familiar from such small-time theater chestnuts as Our Town. (Indeed, the title “Urinetown” could be taken as a play on the latter title: from our town, to your town, to “your in town”—a play on the identity of Urinetown as a place). Funke, as Officer Lockstock (of course his partner, played by producer Steve Scarpa, is named Officer Barrel), keeps us apprised of the storyline, often interacting with Little Sally (Hilary Brown), a forthright young thing dutifully collecting coins to pay for a pee, and often questioning the underlying logic of the production.
Some stand-out bits: the performance of “It’s a Privilege to Pee” by Off-Broadway veteran Sabrina Kershaw, as Penelope Pennywise, the no-nonsense enforcer of regulations about urination;
the song in which our hero, Bobby Strong (Peter Chenot), a civic servant at Public Amenity #9, develops a conscience, finding himself smitten with Cladwell’s winsome daughter Hope (Megan Keith Chenot, also musical director) who tells him “Follow Your Heart,”
In Act II, the rebellion that closes out the first Act risks violent confrontation; Bobby rallies the rabble with “Run, Freedom, Run!”,
The guys do fine—Chenot, Kulp, Funke, Erich Greene, all manage to belt their songs with enough force to overcome the fact that acoustics are not the space’s strong suit—but the real treat is listening to the ladies—Kershaw, Chenot, Brown, all able to give great uplift to their musical numbers.
Special mention as well to the indispensable musicians who make the spare arrangements work—the whole score is played on drums and keyboard by David Keith (drums) of Mission O and The Chrissy Gardner Band and Jeremy Hutchins (keyboard) of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony and St. John’s Church.
Urinetown tells the tale—with songs, clowning, and speeches—of a world reduced to dire restrictions. NHTC, under director Hallie Martenson, has created a stripped-down, bare bones production that matches the show’s singing and dancing on the edge of the apocalypse feel. Like a latter day Moses, Bobby Strong says, “let my people go,” but the right to relieve oneself at will comes with a price. For all its silliness, Urinetown has a lot on its mind, and NHTC’s production does the show proud.
The folks of NHTC choose shows well to show off their strengths, but withUrinetown they show that their strengths are greater than imagined. Go, while you still can: four more shows: May 16-19, 8 p.m.