Review: ‘Urinetown’

WHAAAT? This is the comedic verbal riff frequently uttered during "Urinetown," and it aptly expresses initial spectator surprise at the show's title, subject matter and bizarre plot twists. It applies even more strongly to a sense of pleasurable shock we feel at the brilliant direction, choreography and acting being presented at the Wilshire Theater.

WHAAAT? This is the comedic verbal riff frequently uttered by the cast during “Urinetown,” and it aptly expresses initial spectator surprise at the show’s far-out title, subject matter and bizarre plot twists. It applies even more strongly to a sense of pleasurable shock we feel at the brilliant direction, choreography and acting being presented at the Wilshire Theater. This production of 2002’s Brecht and Weill-inspired Tony-winner for music, book and direction is a teasing, tongue-in-cheek treat from start to finish, an example of how successfully people can bend traditional rules when they blend talent with daring.

Officer Lockstock (Jeff McCarthy, who starred in the Broadway original) appears as narrator and sings, “we can’t have you peeing for free,” letting us know that due to a water shortage, everyone must pay to use public facilities and will be dragged off to dark, dangerous Urinetown for punishment if they fail to comply. McCarthy is a knockout singer, and his facial expressions and body moves are sublimely timed and stylized.

Senator Cladwell (Ron Holgate) excels as the unctuous, oily owner of the Urine Good Co. (UGC), a greedy monster who heartlessly denies free access to toilets for his own financial gain. His daughter Hope (Christiane Noll), dressed in prissy pink and doing a wonderfully wide-eyed echo of Judy Holliday, praises him, “gosh, daddy, I never realized large, monopolizing corporations could be such a force for good in the world!”

This naive evaluation undergoes radical change when she meets Bobby Strong (Charlie Pollock), a rebel who opposes her dad’s bladder-bursting dictum. He also defies Penelope Pennywise (Beth McVey), a hard-as-nails matron assigned to guard Public Amenity 9 against freeloaders.

There’s an occasional awareness that we’re not particularly concerned with the plot and fates of the characters, but humor is the overriding triumph of “Urinetown,” and that humor never flags. Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann have supplied lyrics that sustain a witty, irreverent flavor. A chorus of workers heap false flattery on Cladwell (“Wise but trendy, tough as a mountain! /Goodness flows from you like a fountain”) and Bobby and Hope do a playful twist on ultra-romantic love songs (“Someday I’ll meet someone whose heart joins with mine/ Aortas and arteries all intertwined”).

Kotis’ book races nimbly along from crisis to crisis. It also sneaks in subtly trenchant warnings about over-consumption and a gloriously grotesque bit of pseudo-psychology, “the water’s in you.”

Hollmann’s music masterfully mixes moods, from high-spirited horas to swing and gospel belters, offering delightful sendups of “Les Miz,” “Fiddler,” “Pajama Game” and “Big River.” John Carrafa’s musical staging brings life to every melody and rhythm, enabling each performer to make a major contribution. As ruthless Penelope, McVey unleashes a powerful, imposing voice on “It’s a Privilege to Pee.” Even more mesmerizing is Pollock’s Bobby, punching across “Run Freedom Run.” Pollack (like McCarthy, a veteran of the Broadway show), manages the difficult feat of being broadly funny and heroic, and he lends conviction to a duet with Noll, “Follow Your Heart,” the ultimate cliche title cleverly utilized to spoof “West Side Story”-type love themes.

As Little Sally, the young girl who presses Officer Lockstock for information, Meghan Strange is winningly childlike in her Little Orphan Annie part. Jim Corti (Old Man Strong/Hot Blades Harry) all but steals the swing-oriented “Snuff That Girl,” and Noll’s Hope makes a perfect transition from dewy-eyed innocent to a leader who knocks her Machiavellian pop out of power.

The simplicity of Scott Pask’s scenic design — which features a rotating cement wall that doubles as dirty urinal and neat corporate office — is a tremendous asset, allowing for an openness that gives the action added vitality. Gregory A. Gale and Jonathan Bixby’s costumes are a separate show in themselves, ranging from shabby overalls to pinstriped suits, and Jason DeBord ably leads a rousing five-man band. Sound by Jeff Curtis and Lew Mead, along with Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, are also first-rate.

But the guiding genius is John Rando, who takes a project librettist Greg Kotis once called “unproduceable,” and gives us a farcical confection that palatably spoon-feeds the theatregoer a cynical ending and just the right, painless amount of social significance.


Wilshire Theater, Los Angeles; 1910 seats; $67.00 Top


The Araca Group and Dodger Stage Holding in association with TheatreDreams, Inc. and Lauren Mitchell presentation of a musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Greg Kotis and music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann. Directed by John Rando.


Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, Gregory A. Gale and Jonathan Bixby; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Jeff Curtis and Lew Mead; musical director, Jason DeBord; musical staging, John Carrafa. Production stage manager, Matthew G. Marholin. Opened and reviewed May 11, 2004; runs through May 23. 2 HOURS and 30 MIN.


Officer Lockstock - Jeff McCarthy Little Sally - Meghan Strange Penelope Pennywise - Beth McVey Bobby Strong - Charlie Pollock Hope Cladwell - Christiane Noll Mr. McQueen - Jamie Laverdiere Senator Fipp - Dennis Kelly
Band: Jason DeBord, Owen Kotler, Kevin M. McManus, Ed Shea, Jason Lindsay
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