Urinetown

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Dec. 13, 2011

I saw Tympanium Euphonium’s Urinetown: the Musical over 24 hours ago, and yet I still can’t get that fateful chorus, “Urinetown/This is Urinetown/You’re in Urinetown,” out of my head. The eponymous song appears near the beginning of the play and serves as a chance for the characters to air their grievances: They live in a town where, due to a 20-year drought, water has become “worth its weight in gold.” Thus, everyone must pay to do their business at one of the town’s Public Amenities. And if you don’t have the cash, you just have to hold it. If the police catch someone peeing for free, they cart them off to Urinetown, a place no one seems to know much about but which is certainly worse than where they live now.

Urinetown is a sarcastic send-up of capitalism, big business and musicals themselves. The play opens with Officer Lockstock (Justy Kosek ’14), a corrupt police officer who enforces the pay-to-pee rules, welcoming the audience and Little Sally (Aliza Sotsky ’15) to Urinetown. “Not the place, of course. The musical. Urinetown ‘the place’ is … well, it’s a place you’ll hear people referring to a lot through the show. … It’s kind of a mythical place, you understand. A bad place. A place you won’t see until Act Two. And then? Well, let’s just say it’s filled with symbolism and things like that.” This open breaking of the fourth wall and the characters’ acknowledgment that they are simultaneously living their lives and acting in a musical immediately sets Urinetown apart from the traditional Broadway show. Writer Greg Kotis and lyricist Mark Hollmann use their characters to poke fun at traditional theater from within a musical. Meta.

As the plot progresses, the audience learns that the Urine Good Company, a monopolistic mega-corporation with ties to the government that owns the Public Amenities and controls the water supply, is about to raise its prices. Bobby Strong (Jason Dick ’14), an assistant manager at Public Amenity Number Nine, decides that enough is enough, and he opens the toilets to all, free of charge. Amenity Number Nine is used by the poorest of the poor citizens of the town, many of whom have been sent away to Urinetown for violating the law and peeing without payment, including Bobby’s father, Old Man Strong (Harry Webb ’12). Bobby leads the charge against Urine Good Company’s owner, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Daniel Liebman ’12), convincing his fellow citizens to fight back.

Urinetown‘s greatest strength is its manic pace. Jokes fly across the stage one right after another. The funniest stunts are often created by background characters and are not always caught by the entire audience. Physical comedy, such as Caldwell’s underling Mr. McQueen’s (Zachary Smith ’15) pulled faces and comical stances, came just as quickly. Director Johanna Wickemeyer ’12 and choreographer Danielle Zipkin ’12 were not afraid to make Urinetown absurd. One of the best physical gags of the show occurred during the song “Mr. Cladwell.” Liebman parades around the stage as a chorus of Urine Good Company workers proclaim his greatness and his daughter, Hope Cladwell (Jackie Theoharis ’14), points and sing-shouts “That’s my daddy! That’s my daddy!” hysterically. At the song’s culmination, Liebman throws off his suit jacket, revealing a sparkly red vest underneath, and the office workers form a high-kicking chorus line.

Unfortunately, Urinetown‘s characters and songs are more enjoyable than its actual plot, which got a bit muddled in the second act. Hope Cladwell, who takes up the leadership position against her father, is not as charismatic a character as Bobby Strong, particularly when Theoharis did not have Dick as a comedic partner. The second act also features two pseudo-gospel songs that are meant to be funny simply because they are sung by the clueless Hope and Bobby but which fell flat after the initial joke. The songs, “Run, Freedom, Run” and “I See a River” also didn’t do justice to Dick’s or Theoharis’ voices, which were impressive during other numbers.

Despite these complaints, at the end of the performance, it was clear that the audience had greatly enjoyed the musical. Viewers gave many of the actors a standing ovation. Their laughs throughout the night proved that not only was Urinetown a great success but that everyone, despite how they may try to hide it, loves a good poop joke.

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