Story: A 20-year drought has resulted in Draconian measures for the residents of a decaying metropolis on the outskirts of a mysterious place called Urinetown. Under strict guidelines enforced by the monolithic UGC (Urine Good Company), impoverished denizens must pay for the privilege to relieve themselves at public urinals that have become the only sanctioned outlets for the most basic of human needs. When Bobby Strong, an assistant urinal custodian, sees his father carted away to Urinetown after relieving himself freely in a public area, the lad leads a revolt of the oppressed against greedy corporate kingpin Caldwell B. Cladwell.
While Bobby rallies his moribund cohorts, Cladwell's daughter Hope returns home after graduating from college. She starts working at her dad's company but her life is changed when she meets the irrepressible Bobby. Her heart leads her to support Bobby's cause, but Bobby's fellow revolutionaries kidnap Hope and hold her for ransom until the nefarious Caldwell accedes to their demands for more humane conditions.
Highlights: This ingenious salute to and lampoon of traditional Broadway musicals debuted as part of the 1999 New York International Fringe Festival before moving to an off-Broadway venue in 2001 and a subsequent transfer to Broadway that opened just after the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001. It logged nearly 1,000 performances on the Great White Way before closing in 2004, winning three Tony Awards along the way.
Urinetown cleverly alludes to many modern works of art, ranging from Fritz Lang's film Metropolis to the sci-fi classic Soylent Green and from Bertolt Brecht's gritty Threepenny Opera to the stirring musical Les Miserables. Its tongue-in-cheek approach is consistently clever and beguiling, virtues neatly captured in the broad, comic-book, graphic-novel approach advocated by co-directors Justin Been and Gary Bell in the current Stray Dog Theatre presentation. Bell and Been, who collaborated so successfully last fall on Stray Dog's exhilarating rendition of Tommy, blend their talents smoothly again on this infectiously buoyant interpretation of a modern-day classic.
Other Info: There is a smorgasbord of sensations working in unison in this presentation to continually overwhelm the senses, offering something for virtually every palate. Scenic designer Justin Barisonek sets the stage, literally, with a multi-tiered concoction that provides a second-story office for the manipulative Mr. Cladwell that symbolically rests above the squalor of the streets where Penelope Pennywise oversees the dirtiest public amenity in town. Alexandra Scibetta Quigley delightfully outfits the players in a variety of costumes that differentiate the wealthy (Caldwell, Senator Fipp, Caldwell's sycophantic aide Mr. McQueen) with their tony wardrobes from the utilitarian togs of the downtrodden and working class (Bobby, Pennywise and an array or urchins and street bums). Been and Jay Hall add several humorous touches with their props, including some bunny slippers for Caldwell and the ragamuffin doll clutched by the precocious Little Sally, while Tyler Duenow handsomely lights all the goings-on.
The unnamed makeup designer also deserves kudos for the Tim Burtonesque approach to mascara and sundry splotches of dirt that give the grimy characters a consistently grotesque look. That appearance is especially pronounced and effective when Duenow's lighting draws attention to the oddly stylistic numbers choreographed by J.T. Ricroft which shrewdly use every square inch of the tidy Tower Grove Abbey stage. Chris Petersen adds expert vocal direction that subtly supports the wide range of appealing numbers.
This is the fifth different version of Urinetown I've seen and Jennifer Theby offers by far the best interpretation of Hope Cladwell. Theby's beautiful voice is a solid match for her precise comic delivery that works well in the campy, melodramatic style highlighted in this version. Keith Thompson is a genial and engaging Officer Lockstock, the self-aware narrator who sets the tone for the show's winking approach to theatrical traditions. He's wonderfully complemented by Berklea Going as the constantly puzzled Little Sally, who wonders why hydraulics isn't considered a worthy subject for a song and whose pithy asides provide the show's best laughs.
Deborah Sharn joins Theby as the two finest vocalists in the production, with Sharn assuredly performing her tunes as the tough Ms. Pennywise on the signature number It's a Privilege to Pee. Antonio Rodriguez brings fresh and wholesome fun to the role of the intrepid Bobby, leading the troops on the gospel take-off bit, Run, Freedom, Run, while Christopher Brenner is appropriately both dapper and dastardly as the nasty Cladwell, having great fun on the camp number, Don't Be the Bunny. Others joining in the fun include Michael Brightman, Ryan Cooper, Josh Douglas, C.E. Fifer, Lindsey Jones, J.T. Ricroft, Sabra Sellers, Anna Skidis, Jessica Tilghman and Jeffrey Wright. Some sing better than do others, and some are a bit more polished with the exaggerated style of the comedy, but no one is short on energy or enthusiasm. Urinetown remains as high-spirited and frolicsome as when it first debuted, underscoring its validity as a modern musical treasure.
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: February 9, 10, 11, 16, 17, 18
Tickets: $18-$20l; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb