Urinetown, the Musical

Its surprisingly successful transfer from Off Broadway to Broadway itself still left open the question of whether regional theatergoers would embrace a tuner so wholly ironic. But while "Urinetown" may yet prove less-than-universal in appeal, the new edition premiering at San Francisco's Geary Theater is mighty hard to resist.

With:
With: Katie Adams, Anne Allgood, Jim Corti, Tom Hewitt, Ron Holgate, Frank Holmes, Todd A. Horman, Dennis Kelly, Robyn Kramer, Jamie LaVerdiere, Beth McVey, Michael Minarik, Christiane Noll, Patricia Ben Peterson, Charlie Pollock, Richard Ruiz, Sheri Sanders, Meghan Strange, Richard White, Christopher Youngsman.

Its surprisingly successful transfer from Off Broadway to Broadway itself still left open the question of whether regional theatergoers would embrace a tuner so wholly ironic — by contrast even campy “Hairspray” offers bouffant-high levels of conventional uplift. But while “Urinetown” may yet prove less-than-universal in appeal, the new edition premiering at San Francisco’s Geary Theater is mighty hard to resist. Repackaged by director John Rando and collaborators for the road, it’s a fine-tuned delight, beautifully cast and staged down the line. Presented as final entry in American Conservatory Theater’s 2002-03 season, box office bets hedged by ACT’s subscriber base, its run looks to be a smash — with rave local reviews throwing more fuel on the advance-buzz fire.

With its vaguely Depression-era costumes and atmosphere, parodying the signature works of Brecht-Weill, Marc Blitzstein and others, “Urinetown” perhaps plays ideally in the restored Art Deco temple of the Geary. Nonetheless, Rando & Co. have engineered such a razor-sharp presentation that one imagines any hall would serve just as well. The trick, of course — as with any touring show — is to maintain that precision of gesture and timing through the long grind of successive city dates. If/when it succumbs to slacker rhythms and broader performances, the hyper-self-awareness that floats “Urinetown” might turn unpleasantly arch — rancid, as that moniker suggests.

For now there’s little fear of that, with a cast nearly all new to the show slipping into its lumpen-prole-drama parodics perfectly. Especially felicitous are the narrating (and fourth-wall-breaking) duo of tough-guy-with-dash-of-show-queen Officer Lockstock and precocious orphan Little Sally, performed like a vintage vaudeville routine by Tom Hewitt and Meghan Strange. Christiane Noll wrings beautifully daft variations on the range of ingenue emotions as Hope Cladwell, the rich girl with a budding social conscience whose attraction to John Garfield-like agitprop boy Bobby (cute Charlie Pollock) helps fan the flames of peasant rebellion.

Ron Holgate has some droll moments as Cladwell Sr., mastermind of all drought-plagued Urinetown toilet capitalism. But then pretty much everyone here gets at least a moment or two in which to shine individually. Together, they’re one of the strongest, least cookie-cutter musical ensembles to hit the road in a while.

Composer Mark Hollmann’s pastiche songs remain ingenious. The occasional sophomoric bits in book author and co-lyricist Greg Kotis’ generally witty contributions at least fly by too fast to register a thud. In the wake of “Wicked,” the big-budget, Broadway-hopeful S.F. triumph whose movement too often seemed generic, John Carrafa’s choreography looks more than ever like a high-water mark for dance-idiom satire.

There’s perhaps a bit too much running up and down the aisles in Rando’s Geary staging — no need to goose the audience further with such extra-credit pranks. Still, there’s precious little to quibble about. Monochromatic design contribs have survived intact as a clever mix of poor-theater tricks and genuine polish. The six-member pit band (actually located stage right) is in fine fettle, while miking for the uniformly vocal-strong cast was, happily, imperceptible.

Urinetown, the Musical

Geary Theater, San Francisco; 1,035 SEATS; $66 TOP)

Production: An American Conservatory Theater presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Mark Hollmann, book by Greg Kotis, lyrics by Hollmann and Kotis. Directed by John Rando. Choreography, John Carrafa.

Creative: Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Gregory A. Gale, Jonathan Bixby; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Jeff Curtis, Lew Mead; orchestrations, Bruce Coughlin; music supervisor, Edward Strauss; musical director, Jason DeBord; fight director, Rick Sordelet; production stage manager, Leigh Catlett. ACT artistic director, Carey Perloff. Opened July 1, 2003. Reviewed July 2. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast: With: Katie Adams, Anne Allgood, Jim Corti, Tom Hewitt, Ron Holgate, Frank Holmes, Todd A. Horman, Dennis Kelly, Robyn Kramer, Jamie LaVerdiere, Beth McVey, Michael Minarik, Christiane Noll, Patricia Ben Peterson, Charlie Pollock, Richard Ruiz, Sheri Sanders, Meghan Strange, Richard White, Christopher Youngsman.

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