You're In Good Company With 'Urinetown'

"Urinetown: The Musical"
Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis; music and lyrics by Mark Hollman; directed by Spiro Veloudos; musical direction by Jonathan Goldberg; choreographed by Ilyse Robbins; scenic design by Janie E. Howland; costume design by Rafael Jaen; lighting design by Karen Perlow

Cast in order of appearance:

Officer Lockstock, Christopher Chew
Penelope Pennywise, Maryann Zschau
Bobby Strong, Rob Morrison
Little Sally, Veronica J. Kuehn
Dr. Billeaux/Tiny Tom, Andrew Miramontes
Mr. McQueen, Timothy Smith
Senator Fipp, Peter Edmund Haydu
Officer Barrel, Robert Saoud
Hope Cladwell, Jennifer Ellis
Old Man Strong/Hot Blades Harry, Peter A. Carey
Soupy Sue/Cladwell's Secretary, Michele A. DeLuca
Little Becky Two-Shoes/Mrs. Millenium, Ilyse Robbins
Robby the Stockfish/UGC Exec, Bobby Cronin
Josephine Strong/Old Woman, Ellen Peterson
Billy Boy Bill/UGC Exec, Matthew Kossack
Swings, Ariel Heller, Haley Roth

Performances: Now through October 15
Box Office: www.lyricstage.com or (617)-437-7172

The Lyric Stage Company kicks off their thirty-first season in Boston with "Urinetown: The Musical," the Tony award winning show that spoofs the very best of Broadway. The story itself is simple tale of good versus evil. Residents of a Gotham-like city with a severe water shortage are being exploited by Urine Good Company, a corrupt company that charges them to use public amenities when private toilets are banned by the government. The residents are miserable until young Bobby Strong leads a rebellion against UGC and its owner, Caldwell B. Cladwell; however, things get a bit complicated when Bobby falls in love with Cladwell's daughter, Hope. As the show's youngest character, Little Sally, points out, there are plenty of factors that can ruin a show—a weak storyline, poor dialogue, and a terrible name. Fortunately, none of these are remotely a factor for Lyric Stage's production of "Urinetown." Under the direction of Spiro Veloudos, this production rivals the touring production that came through Boston two years ago—it's fresh, funny, and leaves the audience entertained and satisfied long after the show has finished.

Veloudos, now in his eighth season at the Lyric Stage Company, clearly has a unique eye for directing that shines through the moment you enter the theatre. His genius is highlighted with his insistence on audience interaction throughout the production. In a typical theatre-in-the-round situation, it is so simple to ostracize two-thirds of the audience; however, Veloudos overcomes the handicap of the performance space to create an atmosphere where audience members feel not only as if they are watching the show, but that they are part of the show as well. This begins from the moment audience members begin to sit and find that they are being patrolled and questioned by the police officers in the cast. Veloudos continues to set the mood before the production starts by slowly introducing cast members, from the poor masses who are wandering about on stage to the orchestra members, who are led to the upstairs pit as if they are prisoners being led to jail. Veloudos successfully engages the audience and sets the mood of the show before the first number begins, and masterfully directs his moderately sized cast of fifteen to ensure that this energy remains throughout the entire production—from the opening number to the final joke. He also pokes fun at Broadway tradition perfectly, from the "Fiddler" inspired choreography to the "Les Misérables" inspired revolution scene, and ensures that the audience is never bored.

The balance and interaction between Janie Howland's sets and Karen Perlow's lighting design is one more highlight of this masterful production. Once again, the seating arrangement of Lyric Stage's theatre provides a challenge for both Howland and Perlow, but both conquer this obstacle to create technical aspects that stand strong both separately and together throughout the production. Howland's two-story, multi-purpose set, complete with trap doors and movable pieces creates the grungy feel needed for "Urinetown." The shades of grey and black that define the set, along with the protruding pipes, the prison-like railings, and the frayed pieces of plastic that protrude into the audience lend themselves to the creation of a policed shantytown-like atmosphere, which successfully bring the audience in as part of the production. Perlow's lighting design, with a strong emphasis on the creation of shadows and the use of shades of yellow and white, mirrors what is being portrayed by the actors and brings to light what is going on in the show. The pinnacle of Perlow's design takes place during "Why Did I Listen To That Man?" a number that is both artistically and aesthetically pleasing—she exemplifies lighting design as the art form that it is.

While the creative and technical aspects of Lyric Stage's "Urinetown" create the foundations for a successful production, the talent of and relationship between the orchestra and the cast put this production over the top. Due to the size of the theatre, the entire production, sans the keyboard, is completely acoustic. There are no microphones of any kind except for vocal sound effects. While at first it seems as if this might be a weakness, it soon turns into one of the strongest points of the show. Without the benefit of microphones, the cast is forced to carry the production completely by ear. While there were a few instances where a lead was drowned out or the balance between parts was slightly off, the purity of the voices complemented the organic nature of the orchestra—this production is not only pleasing to watch, but truly beautiful to listen to as well.

As an ensemble, this cast of "Urinetown" is stronger than most. Individually each cast member stands out, but together, they are a force to be reckoned with, and this force is what drives the show. The on-stage chemistry between characters is unparalleled, and the attention to detail by each cast member to his or her role is truly a breath of fresh air. "Urinetown" is a musical that is driven by its ensemble rather than its leads, and Lyric Stage's interpretation doesn't disappoint.

Lyric Stage's casting was also one of the strongest points of the production—it was one of few shows where absolutely no one was miscast, and there were several standout performances. Christopher Chew provided a new perspective to the role of Officer Lockstock, and was an absolute pleasure as the narrator of the story. His perfectly timed humor along with his fantastically rich voice made him an absolute pleasure in the role. Maryann Zschau was equally powerful; while her vocal ability weakens as she enters her operatic range, the attitude she displays as Penelope Pennywise and her tremendous ability to belt the rest of her numbers more than make up for any deficiency she shows in her higher range. Jennifer Ellis as Hope Cladwell has the exact opposite problem; her classical, operatic range is beautifully sung in her crystal soprano, but weakens as she goes to belt in her lower range. However, Ellis plays the naïve and idealistic Hope so perfectly that little else seems to matter. Even Veronica J. Kuehn plays Little Sally perfectly, although it is the most thankless and annoying character in the production. With Kuehn's clear belt, it is almost forgotten that Little Sally is, in fact, the most poorly written character in the show.

Every show has a breakout star, and Lyric Stage's Urinetown is no exception. While all the leads portray their roles in perfect fashion, recent Emerson graduate Rob Morrison as Bobby Strong stands out as the shining star in this musical. With his red hair, devilish smile, and boyish good looks, Morrison looks the role of young and idealistic Strong perfectly. When he begins to sing, it is apparent that he was cast not only on looks, but on sheer talent. This young actor, whose previous credits include Pippin in Pippin and Balladeer in Assassins, has the crystal tenor of a performer who is destined for Broadway stardom. Morrison's vocal highlights from this production include "Look at the Sky" and "Run, Freedom, Run!" and more than once does his performance send chills down the spine; he could easily give Hunter Foster a run for his money in this role. Morrison has the talent, the attitude, and the looks to succeed, and there is no doubt that great things will happen for this accomplished performer.

In an age of stunt casting and theatre clichés, Lyric Stage's "Urinetown" is a truly wonderful and unique experience. With the talent of the cast, the hilarity of the book, the freshness of the choreography, and the sheer originality of the set and costumes, you're in good company with this production of "Urinetown."

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From This Author Olena Ripnick

Olena Ripnick is a Boston University journalism student and freelance writer whose introduction to the performing arts took place when she was cast as Gretel (read more...)

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