Review: ‘Urinetown’

John Cullum

Is the age of irony over? In the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks on the U.S., many pundits seem to think so. Even David Letterman, who has made a career of sardonicism, dropped the mocking mask last week, acknowledging that his brand of humor may be out of tune -- at least temporarily -- with the tenor of the times.

Is the age of irony over? In the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks on the U.S., many pundits seem to think so. Even David Letterman, who has made a career of sardonicism, dropped the mocking mask last week, acknowledging that his brand of humor may be out of tune — at least temporarily — with the tenor of the times.

This may pose a problem for “Urinetown,” a musical that is opening on Broadway at a time when the stock of its cheerfully sarcastic humor is plummeting faster than box office grosses. “Urinetown” skewers the kind of shows in which good triumphs over evil and ardent young lovers sing songs about following their hearts and looking to the sky for inspiration. It kids the kind of moral simplicities that, in the wake of the recent tragedy, aren’t so easily dismissed, and pokes fun at earnest sentiments that now have painfully authentic currency.

Whether audiences will be able — or willing — to set aside their new perspective remains to be seen. The audience at a recent preview seemed to take pleasure in the show’s energetic mocking of the corny tropes of showbiz, even if some of them might almost have been transposed from recent news reports — for example a somber ballad, “Tell Her I Love Her,” based on a young man’s dying words.

Sensibilities are not reshaped overnight, after all. But a musical comedy featuring a pair of evil cops who throw the hero off the top of a skyscraper may have a tough time drawing an audience into its make-believe world at the moment. Actor Jeff McCarthy, who intones most of his lines in a booming baritone in his robust performance as one of those nasty cops, seemed intentionally to swallow the line that follows this bit of business, in which he turns to his partner and says, “A shovel and a mop … you know the drill.” (Surely those words, at least, should be excised.)

Set in a post-apocalyptic world in which everyone must pay to pee — the logic of its workings are best left unexplored — “Urinetown” uses the stylistic hallmarks of agitprop musicals like “The Threepenny Opera” and “The Cradle Will Rock” to tell a story of oppressed masses rising up against ruthless capitalist overlords.

The production is a replica of the Off Broadway version from the spring, and the semi-decrepit Henry Miller Theater makes an apt home for it. The show’s surface virtues are still intact: It’s been directed with flashy comic flair by John Rando and features cute choreography by John Carrafa that riffs on various styles, from Fosse to Robbins.

The performances are strongly etched caricatures that poke fun at the snarling villains and dewy young innocents of melodrama. They are, across the board, vivid and stylish, from the grand guignol excesses of Nancy Opel’s Penelope Pennywise and John Cullum’s suavely rapacious Caldwell B. Cladwell to the pitch-perfect wholesomeness of Jennifer Laura Thompson and Hunter Foster as the class-crossing young lovers Hope and Bobby. The supporting players each make a distinct impression, too.

Composer Mark Hollman is indisputably talented; on second hearing, his clever pastiches of Kurt Weill, Tin Pan Alley, gospel and other musical styles are even more impressive. Some of the unabashedly uplifting ballads and energetic anthems might be affecting on their own if plucked out of the show’s self-conscious framework: the tinkly piano ballad “Follow Your Heart,” for example, featuring lyrics like “When darkness surrounds you/And you lose your way/You have your own compass/That turns night to day…”

But we are forbidden to take these and other earnest sentiments seriously; the show keeps reminding us it’s just a silly old musical, and we’re suckers if we fall for its manipulative charms. That winking tone grows monotonous quickly — it’s hard to muster sustained interest in a cast of characters stalking the stage with ironic quotation marks around their ears.

“Urinetown” trades in a kind of humor that is essentially destructive: It’s about poking holes in silly conventions, tearing down sacred cows, exposing the clunky mechanics of melodramas and musicals.

Deconstruction is, after all, just a benign form of destruction. And the producers may find that audiences have faced too much destruction in recent days even to look fondly on the aesthetic kind, however affectionately it is rendered.

Urinetown

Henry Miller Theater; 635 seats; $85 top

Production

An Araca Group and Dodger Theatricals presentation, in association with TheaterDreams Inc. and Lauren Mitchell, of a musical in two acts, with music and lyrics by Mark Hollman, book and lyrics by Greg Kotis. Directed by John Rando. Musical staging by John Carrafa.

Creative

Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Gregory Gale and Jonathan Bixby; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Jeff Curtis; fight director, Rick Sordelet; orchestrations, Bruce Coughlin; musical direction, Edward Strauss; conductor, Ed Goldschneider; music coordinator, John Miller; production stage manager, Julia P. Jones. Opened Sept. 20, 2001. Reviewed Sept. 17. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Officer Lockstock - Jeff McCarthy
Little Sally - Spencer Kayden
Penelope Pennywise - Nancy Opel
Bobby Strong - Hunter Foster
Hope Cladwell - Jennifer Laura Thompson
Mr. McQueen - David Beach
Senator Fipp - John Deyle
Old Man Strong/ Hot Blades Harry - Ken Jennings
Tiny Tom/ Dr. Billeaux - Rick Crom
Soupy Sue/ Cladwell's Secretary - Rachel Coloff
Little Becky Two Shoes/ Mrs. Millennium - Jennifer Cody
Robbie the Stockfish/ Business Man #1 - Victor W. Hawks
Billy Boy Bill/ Business Man #2 -Lawrence Street
Old Woman/ Josephine Strong - Kay Walbye
Officer Barrel - Daniel Marcus
Caldwell B. Cladwell - John Cullum

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