Tongue in cheek is clearly the tone of choice for Off Broadway musicals this season. First came “Bat Boy,” a self-consciously preposterous musical based on a story in the tabloid Weekly World News. Now welcome “Urinetown,” a self-consciously preposterous musical with a more respectable antecedent — Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” — but a more spectacularly unsavory title.
As with “Bat Boy,” there’s a lot of talent on display in “Urinetown,” beginning behind the scenes with newcomers Mark Hollmann (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (book and lyrics). Onstage is a crew of uniformly delightful performers both seasoned (the bad-guy duo of John Cullum and Nancy Opel) and fresh (the good young lovers Jennifer Laura Thompson and Hunter Foster).
And just as “Bat Boy,” a scrappy show from L.A., was given a big commercial upgrade in Gotham from seasoned producers, there’s strong commercial interest in “Urinetown,” which is being presented by, among other entities, Dodger Theatricals, after an acclaimed run at the 1999 Fringe Festival.
“Bat Boy” was affectionately received by many critics, and it’s safe to say that “Urinetown,” already the recipient of nine Drama Desk nominations, will likewise be celebrated. But it’s possible to admire the show’s execution — it’s distinctly more stylish, cohesive and clever than “Bat Boy,” for starters — while lamenting the essential paltriness of the enterprise.
“Urinetown” has pretensions to social significance and might charitably be seen as a critique of the environmental exploitation or Giuliani-style government tyranny, but the show is primarily and most successfully spoofing the careworn conventions of theater itself. It doesn’t really aim to comment on actual experience but on the experience of theater; it’s not about people but about people as they’re represented onstage.
The tone is set soon after a musically audacious overture mixing jazz and baroque textures, as Officer Lockstock (Jeff McCarthy) welcomes us with stern self-seriousness 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 throughout 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.”
That encapsulates the show’s attitude: knowing, mocking, self-referential. Enter Little Sally (Spencer Kayden), pig-tailed and precious: “Say, Officer Lockstock, is this where you tell the audience about the water shortage?” “Everything in its time, Little Sally. You’re too young to understand it now, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”
The simple plot pits the oppressed poor masses against a small band of greedy, rich overlords. The central conceit posits a world in which people must pay to use government-run public amenities; to relieve oneself in any other fashion is outlawed.
The score begins in dark Brecht-Weillian mode with an anthem sung by the full cast: “It’s the oldest story/Masses are oppressed/Faces, clothes and bladders are distressed./Rich folks get the good life,/Poor folks get the woe./In the end, it’s nothing you don’t know.” The lyrics throughout are crisp, sharp and clever. Hollmann’s music eventually strays far from the mock-Weillian strains of its beginnings, going on to embrace romantic balladry in the Bernstein “West Side Story” mode as well as a bit of Kander & Ebb jazz and, eventually, gospel. The melodies are strong, the rhythms rousing and infectious.
Director John Rando (“The Dinner Party”) has staged the show with peppy comic flair. Along with Scott Pask’s grungy, atmospheric set, the direction owes something to Sam Mendes’ work on the revival of “Cabaret,” a debt that’s overtly acknowledged in a lively mock-Fosse number in the second act, “Snuff That Girl.”
The performances are uniformly splendid and perfectly pitched, with each actor playing up the archetypal silliness of his or her role without descending to cheap caricature. Cullum’s Caldwell B. Cladwell, owner of the Urine Good Co., is a leering, exuberantly malevolent fellow. His daughter Hope is played with wonderfully disingenuous ingenuousness by Thompson, a lovely actress and fine singer. She’s well matched by Foster, who plays the rebellious leader of the oppressed poor with an admirably straight face. Opel is pungently weather-beaten and aptly shrill as Penelope Pennywise. The supporting cast is likewise terrifically drilled and vocally assured.
The show’s tone, of course, precludes our taking any real interest in the proceedings. Brecht and Weill didn’t aim to seduce our emotions much either, of course, but their savage, self-conscious tone was meant to draw the audience’s attention to real social evils, not the rather smaller beer of theatrical cliches. (“Urinetown’s” last-minute stabs at social commentary, including a reference to Malthus, can’t really be taken seriously.)
The show’s exuberant sending up of theatrical conventions is consistently cute and smart, but it’s essentially adolescent, and it grows wearisome. Can a musical be self-conscious without being self-devouring? Certainly: “The Producers” and “Chicago,” to take two examples currently on Broadway, are full of knowing jokes and cutting references to theatrical artifice, but they also give us full-blooded characters and stories drawn from life, not other shows; irony is the seasoning, not the whole meal.
But this is a new century, and the young talents behind both “Bat Boy” and “Urinetown” appear to be, er, the preferred flavor of the day. If musicals once aspired to send audiences on their way with a smile, the new goal seems to be to leave us with a smirk.