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.