BWW Reviews: URINETOWN at Act Two at Levine Delights
Broadway has often been called the 'Fabulous Invalid' and those who fear its demise can be reassured. After watching Act Two @ Levine's riotously funny production of Urinetown, it's clear that the American theater has a long, healthy and talented life ahead of it. Urinetown is not an easy musical to perform. It's made harder still when the staging timeline is a mere four weeks. The ability of this young cast to create a production in such a short time while comprehending the nuance, satire and humor of Urinetown bodes well for the future of Washington, DC's regional theater and musicals at large.
Act Two @ Levine is a pre-professional theatrical training program for middle and high school students interested in the performing arts. The program seeks to provide students with musical theater education, vocal coaching and technical experience by providing them with performance opportunities. Students also receive the opportunity to meet and hear directly from leaders in the theater community. For example, prior to Urinetown students staged a production of Jason Robert Brown's Parade last month. Right after Urinetown's closing, the students will be remounting Parade for a private performance and master class with Brown himself.
Urinetown is a satirical musical that pokes fun at big business, Broadway musicals, capitalism, environmentalism and politics. "It takes place in a town like any town...that you might find in a musical," as Officer Lockstock, the show's narrator, informs the audience in the opening number. Due to a water shortage, the townspeople have to pay to use the bathroom or "public amenities" as they are labeled. Anyone who can't pay can't use the facilities. Furthermore, anyone caught using the facilities without paying or relieving themselves in public are taken away to Urinetown. And what is Urinetown? Well Officer Lockstock describes it as, "It's kind of a mythical place, you understand. A bad place. A place you won't see until Act Two. And then...? Well, let's just say it's filled with symbolism and things like that."
If you can't already tell, the show doesn't exactly take itself seriously, which is a good thing! With a name like Urinetown, one that gets a quizzical look from anyone unfamiliar with the musical, the creative team would have been ill-advised to strive for high drama. However, don't let the show fool you. While at first it may seem like light-hearted fare, Urinetown makes some interesting societal arguments and ones that will leave you thinking.
As the show's co-narrator Little Sally, Annika Cowles is in the interesting position of having to play a little girl who innocently asserts the show's most intelligent arguments while also outsmarting law enforcement. Cowles' performance perfectly balances the complexities and humor of Little Sally, while never straying into the absurd, which is a risk for any adult playing a child on-stage. Using a combination of wit and improvisational humor, Cowles is able to convey both the innocence of youth and wisdom of survival. She's confident in her ability to serve as a voice of reason amongst the townspeople all while holding a soiled teddy bear. Cowles has terrific chemistry with her co-narrator Officer Lockstock, wonderfully portrayed by Max Fowler.
Together, they open the show with a dry, comedic, intellectual debate about the merits of what makes a good musical. As Officer Lockstock, Fowles approaches the role with a patriarchal attitude of man assigned to keep the peace and yet all too aware of what really is happening. Additionally, Fowler has Urinetown's toughest number with "Cop Song," a megalomaniacal rap about what it's like to serve as the town's top cop. The song is challenging because in addition to being lyrically tricky, its tempo increases in speed as "Top Cop" progresses. Newman's energetic rendition proves that his Act Two vocal training has prepared him to command the song and in turn, the townspeople as well. He knows what people will do to serve and will work to ensure its through legal means. There's no mercy in his voice when he condemns them to Urinetown!
David Newman's Caldwell B. Cladwell is the show's antagonist, although this is a label that can be debated. Newman oozes the smarm and sliminess necessary to be a satirical send-up of a big business tycoon. One can hope as Newman grows older that he'll one-day be offered Chicago's Billy Flynn, because he'd be perfect in the role. But Newman also brings a charisma to the role, especially in any scene with Amanda Silverstein who plays his daughter Hope. It's a great turning point that makes us question our assumptions about him, if only momentarily.
Some of the other high-points in the show include Silverstein who gives Hope the bright-eyed, optimistic naiveté called for by the role. As the love-interest to Marc Pavan's Bobby Strong, our protagonist, their introductory scene outside Public Amenity #9 is very cute. The intense romantic focus on each other is strong enough to have us belief that these two really can change the world. It also doesn't hurt that Pavan is charming as Bobby and it's easy to see why the townspeople are so eager to follow him with the Act II gospel-inspired "Run, Freedom, Run." His boyish good looks convey that of an archetypal musical theater hero. However, Pavan also uses those same looks to convey guilt and anxiety with his inability to save his father from Urinetown after he couldn't pay the fee.
The ensemble is fantastic and it's exciting to watch as these creative young performers work with each other. What's interesting are the personalities and back stories they bring into each character of the ensemble. This was a choice made by the company, and a very wise one. Audiences will see a beauty queen, nun, expectant mother and many more all waiting to use the pay toilet. It's a great leveler and one that emphasizes just how drastic the crisis is in Urinetown. Together, they are skillfully directed by Kevin Kuchar who has ensured that the numbers and dialogue are crisp, well-executed and fluid.
There's a minimal but effective set to this Urinetown, which include a collection of stalls along the back wall. Each stall is back-lighted in various colors giving an almost eerie, forbidden feeling to the toilets. Also, pay attention to the graffiti on the stall doors. Details like these bring to life the desperation of a world where you cannot relieve yourself for free. Better hope you can pay the fee!
There's an excitement watching Urinetown, and it's not simply because this is one of the most original musicals of this century. Watching these young actors begin their training under the expert guise of Act Two @ Levine results in an enormous feeling of hope for the upcoming generation of theater professionals to do amazing things with the "Fabulous Invalid!"
Urinetown played at Wholly Mammoth Theatre Rehearsal Hall in Washington, DC from March 7-9, 2014. For information on Act Two @ Levine and future performance dates for the rest of the 2013-2014 season of productions, see its website.
Graphic: (L-R) Amanda Silverstein, Marc Pavan in Act Two @Levine's Urinetown. Credit: Act Two @ Levine