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"Urinetown" at Cockpit-in-Court

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SHOW INFORMATION: Through August 3; Fri and Sat at 8PM, Sun at 3PM.  Tickets and information at www.ccbcmd.edu or 410.780.6369.  

◊◊◊ out of five.  2 hours, 30 minutes, including intermission.  Mild language, adult themes.

 

Maybe it is me, but Urinetown just isn't as fresh as it once was.  Back in 2001, it was like a breath of fresh air – smart, tongue-in-cheek and hilariously funny.  These days, though, it seems to have lost its edge.  Subsequent shows have improved upon the formula, and have learned a valuable lesson from the show:  too much of a good thing wears thin pretty fast.  But that really isn't the show's fault, or anyone who puts on a decent to very good production of it.  The production which opened this past weekend at Cockpit-in-Court in Essex is just that – a decent to very good production. 

Director Robert Oppel showed he was a directorial force to be reckoned with judging by last year's spectacular and very original production of Assassins.  Here, he is somewhat less successful, as he appears to be trying to find original ways to attack the material, but somehow often comes across like he is being held back, settling for less originality and more standard Urinetown staging.  That said, when he has a firm grip on the show, it comes across like an explosion of musical theatre fun.  Still, there are whole stretches where the show plods along.  How much of that has to do with the concept wearing thin, I suppose, is up to the individual theatergoer.  Lori Perron's choreography seems to match Mr. Oppel's direction.  When it is good ("Mr. Cladwell) it is really good – love the multicolor file folders used as vaudeville fans.  When it is pedestrian ("The Cop Song") it is, well, boring. 

The cast is similar in quality, too.  Those who are good are very good, the rest, not so much.  In general, it seems that about half of the cast gets the joke – and how perilous the balance is between parody and shtick.  The other half has replaced humor based in a sense of reality (albeit a skewed reality) with mugging and hamming it up.  This disparity is most obvious in the portrayals by actors who have less character on the page to rely upon.  These individuals, trying to create a character, play way too big – one literally chewing scenery and other cast members. 

Several of the supporting characters make an impression, some good, some very good, others are puzzling.  One of the latter is Thom Eric Sinn's take on Officer Barrel, which vacillates between funny sidekick, and oddly gay stalker.  Interesting, but not always in a good way.  Another is the usually spot on John Suchy, as Senator Fipp, playing every line like it will garner a big laugh, but is more reminiscent of Colonel Sanders than anything else.  Somewhat better is the nearly perfect delivery of Sarah Fitzpatrick and Rick Arnold as Josephine and Old Man Strong, respectively.  Also firmly in on the joke is Natalie Knox as Soupy Sue, who takes one tiny bit of business – a smelling fetish – and milks it just enough to be continuously funny.

Of the supporting roles, though, Karina Ferry (as Little Becky Two-Shoes), Brian Jacobs (as Hot Blades Harry) and Drew Gaver (as McQueen) are all really very excellent.  All three know what they are spoofing and all three play that like it is 100% real.  Ms. Ferry's delivery of every line is razor sharp, and the physicality of Mr. Jacobs' characterization really brings out the laughs.  Mr. Gaver, perilously close to over-doing it, brings us back and forth to the edge of excess, but manages to pull it back in just in time, time after time. 

Of the main players, again, they range from decent to excellent, but in the balance the main cast is very good.  John Desmone's take on Cladwell is appropriately snarky, though not nearly subversive and cruel as he could be.  In short, we know he's "the bad guy,"  but he doesn't do enough to hook us.  This most notable in one of the score's cleverest numbers, "Don't Be the Bunny," which he sings well, but with not nearly enough bad guy glee.  Ken Ewing's Officer Lockstock is a riot – part Elvis, part Maxwell Smart, and totally funny.  It is always fun to watch Mr. Ewing when he disappears into a character. 

Renee Monico, as Hope, manage to make fun of all musical theatre ingénues, and still keeps from being annoying.  She is particularly good in "Follow Your Heart."  Tammy Crisp as Little Sally mines the role for every golden nugget and she is extremely successful.  She is funny, sly, and really understands what she is sending up.  Her chemistry with Mr. Ewing makes their pairing all the more delightful.

Much of act one, and ultimately the entire show, depends on having the right actress in the role of Pennywise.  She must be part Ethel Merman, part Brechtian Frau, and give all of that extremity a tinge of heart to make her final scene work.  What better local actress than the superb Liz Boyer Hunnicutt?  She is hilarious with a capital "H".  Still, the lion's share of the show rests on the shoulders of the actor playing Bobby Strong, and this production has an amazing one in Tom Burns.  His easy on the ears voice, his broad comic style and his perfect parody of the earnest leading man all add up to one of the better performances by a local actor this year.  He is excellent throughout, but is really superb in "Run, Freedom, Run" and "Look to the Sky." 

Urinetown depends on its audience having a better than passing knowledge of theatre, and the send ups of Les Miserables, West Side Story, and a riotous nod to Fiddler on the Roof are greeted here with the appropriate laughs and applause.  (My personal favorite was Little Sally's upstage entrance as Kira on Skates from Xanadu.)  Wisely, Mr. Oppel and company have kept the parody to musical theatre as it should be.  References to other pop culture just don't work.  Still, this version could use a ton more manic energy in the middle of act one, and a few times in act two.  Up the energy a notch or two and this Urinetown would be a real privilege to see.

 

PHOTOS by Amy Jones.  TOP to BOTTOM: Ken Ewing and Tammy Crisp; Tom Desmone and Liz Boyer Hunnicutt; Tom Burns and Renee Monico.

 


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