Some big Broadway shows, good as they are, improve with shrinkage. Case in point: “Sweeney Todd.” As “Sweeney” got teeny, first under helmer Susan H. Schulman and later under John Doyle, its themes became clearer and its impact increased. New case in point: “Urinetown.” Crisply staged, performed by a flawless cast, Interact Theater Company’s intimate mounting is equal or superior in every important respect to the award-winning Gotham environmental staging. With only four perfs a week, those 99 seats are going to be mighty hard to come by in a very short time.
To be sure, tuner’s origin at the 1999 New York Intl. Fringe Fest means Calvin Remsberg’s production at the Matrix is a return to minimalist roots rather than an out-and-out reinvention. In fact, Interact’s aud gets the best of both worlds: the immediacy of a passionate little fringe show, but with Broadway-caliber moxie.
Central notion — of a post-apocalyptic, drought-plagued city where water is regulated by a rapacious corporation making pee-for-free a crime — remains as silly as ever, the social critique cutting no deeper than the old saw that the rich get richer and the poor get pregnant.
Premise is merely the excuse for a deadpan parody of socially conscious musicals like “The Cradle Will Rock” and “Les Miserables,” in which mystifying cliches about “freedom” and “love” are belted as if they were profundities, and metaphors are taken with dumbfounding literalness. Romantic ballad “Follow Your Heart” alludes to entwined aortas and arteries, and the cast whips out sunglasses for the rabble-rousing “Look at the Sky.”
Winks and nudges would deal this material a death blow, but Remsberg has shaped it in total earnest. Portentous pronouncements are made with heartfelt energy, and melodramatic plot twists shake the characters to their core. The stakes could not be higher in this production, and the result is simply the funniest show in town.
Every member of the unimprovable chorus is playing a fully developed character (actually several, and so effective is the doubling that cast seems twice its already impressive size). Watch anyone in a group number, and you’ll see something specific and detailed going on sans mugging; individual character comedy, yes, but contributing to the whole. A return trip to “Urinetown” simply to observe the ensemble at work would yield rich rewards.
Happily, the leads are up to the chorus’ level. John Rubinstein, lither and more limber than original John Cullum, though with the same Broadway panache, out-Trumps Trump with wicked glee as plutocrat Caldwell B. Cladwell. You can still see and hear Pippin (his 1972 signature role) despite the white hair and beard, but now with a snarl that suggests he’d happily devour an enemy for breakfast.
Rubinstein establishes instant, riotous rapport with the slatternly Ms. Pennywise (Amanda Carlin). It’s a tall order to step into the shoes of the great Nancy Opel, but Carlin pulls it off, and the close proximity creates a certain pathos that is uniquely hers.
Matthew Ashford and Rona Benson are winning and hilarious throughout as show’s interlocutors, commenting on absurdities of plot even as they advance it.
Minimum requirements for any tuner’s romantic duo are attractive singing and looks. The leads here have those qualities and much more. Appearing more like a gangly Niles Crane than a conventional hero, John Hemphill takes Bobby on a deliciously plotted journey from schlemiel to Spartacus. Kelly Lohman possesses Hope Cladwell’s innate sweetness, but a psychotic gleam in her eye confirms she’s her father’s daughter. Both are superb and surely will be heard from again.
Choreography by Tracy Powell (who also appears in the show, doubtless because the cast was having so much fun that she couldn’t not get in on it) overcomes the limitations of stage’s shallow, wide expanse to deftly channel and spoof musical moments from “West Side Story” and “Les Miz,” to “Ragtime” and “Guys and Dolls.”
Two caveats. Matt Scarpino’s set, while serviceable, is the only aspect that says “low-budget theater.” Cladwell’s supposedly palatial office is particularly wan, though Vandy Scoates’ costumes in those scenes and elsewhere look like a million bucks, and Carol Doehring’s lighting is evocative and even witty at times.
And while choral singing is first-rate, the Matrix acoustics create difficulty in making out lyrics, especially from far stage left and right. But since Rubinstein himself served as musical director, perhaps it’s just a nefarious plot spawned by Caldwell B. Cladwell, to have aud come back another night to sit on the opposite side of the house and hear what they missed.