BWW Review: URINETOWN Brings Potty Humor At Its Best To Milwaukee's Skylight Music Theatre
The house lights still blazed brightly as townsfolk trickled onto the stage, clutching their bladders in agony. "When did that guy get here?" my neighbor asked, nodding in the direction of a man writhing on the stage floor. His unannounced arrival was the first indication that this musical would be filled with all things unexpected.
The second clue came when Officer Lockstock, also the narrator, welcomed us to Urinetown: The Musical, flashing his best jazz hands. Yes, a musical that knows it's a musical and repeatedly reminds you it's a musical - that's also unexpected. Lockstock, played by the hilarious Rick Pendzich, goes on to relay the history of Urinetown - the fictitious place, not the 2001 Tony winner.
Per the audience guide, the story is set in a "Gotham-like" city where a 20-year drought has led to the government control of all toilets. An evil corporation, Urine Good Company, regulates public bathrooms and charges people for the privilege to pee. This satire touches on the class system, corporate greed, capitalism, and politics - and it's done with laugh-out-loud gags aplenty.
Luckily, there's so much more than potty humor here. There's a classic boy-meets-girl romance and a root-for-the-underdog verve. Most notably, Urinetown was written by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis to be an ode to musical theater itself. Says Skylight Artistic Director Ray Jivoff: "Once you get past the title, a source for comedy in the script, this is a really entertaining Broadway musical that reinvigorated the very notion of what a musical could be." More on that to come. Let's pivot back to the comedy.
This Skylight cast has comedic timing down pat, playing up the humor in all the usual character tropes. There's our hero - the young & earnest upstart, the wide-eyed dream girl, the cartoonishly evil big wigs, cops with their film noir speech patterns, and Little Sally who innocently pesters our narrator throughout the show.
Though delivered with childlike naiveté, Little Sally (Kaylee Annable) always asks the big questions. Like, why focus solely on toilets and not other issues affected by a 20-year drought, such as bathing or hydraulics. As Officer Lockstock explains, it's easier for the audience to digest just one issue - and it's easier to write.
As for the other tropes, our hero is Bobby Strong, played by Lucas Pastrana, a recent grad of the Peck School of the Arts. Pastrana's voice is as mighty as his character's surname; his demeanor on point as the archetypal leading man. Bobby Strong's love interest, Hope, is played by Milwaukee native Rachael Zientek, who walks the fine line between sickly-sweet and knowingly-saccharine, and does so with a lovely voice to boot. These two make a delightful and funny pair.
Aside from perhaps Pendzich's Officer Lockstock and Annable's Little Sally, few drew bigger laughs than the maniacal men controlling the toilets: Steven M. Koehler as head honcho Caldwell B. Cladwell, Doug Jarecki as Senator Fipp, and James Carrington as the shrieking Mr. McQueen. There's also Penelope Pennywise (Amber Smith), a pawn in the bad guys' plot to increase the fee to pee. Pennywise controls Public Amenity #9 - the toilet used by Bobby Strong and his band of revolutionaries. Smith's Pennywise doesn't skip a beat, her voice commanding through her character's palpable sleaze.
The Skylight has also assembled a dynamite ensemble cast, with each voice a force and each character an asset to Urinetown's side-splitting humor. The ensemble does a lot of the heavy lifting in bringing the aforementioned musical odes to life - from mimicking a chorus of plunger-toting Ziegfeld girls to marching à la Les Miserables to attempting the famous Fiddler bottle dance with (again) plungers in place of bottles.
Beyond the laughs, one of the biggest show-stoppers is Act Two's "Run, Freedom, Run!" - a gospel-inspired tune with an acapella break that showcases just how stunningly talented this entire cast is
In the end, you may leave Urinetown wondering, as Little Sally does, what kind of a musical is this? Officer Lockstock would have me remind me you that it isn't supposed to be a happy one. It's one full of mixed signals: comedic tropes, untimely death, catchy music, rich vs. poor, hope for tomorrow, and an ultimately uncertain future. It makes you think not only about the baddies who want to regulate our metaphorical toilets, but also the do-gooders who act on righteous principle alone without regard to reality.
As show creator Mark Hollmann says, "No one has the answer; Urinetown merely raises the questions." The one thing you won't be questioning as you leave the Skylight is whether or not this was two hours of your time well spent. For that, the answer would be a hearty yes. Just make sure to exercise your right to pee before all the laughing kicks in.
Photo credit: Mark Frohna