BWW Review: Nashville Rep's 35th Season Celebration Kicks Off With Astonishing URINETOWN THE MUSICAL
Miller, Parris, Arnold and Chambers Lead Director Jason Tucker's Talented Ensemble
Brilliant social commentary or sophomoric lowbrow humor? Just what is it that makes Urinetown the Musical such a hit with audiences and theater companies - is it the biting satire delivered by Greg Kotis' book and lyrics and in Mark Hollmann's music and lyrics, or is it (in the case of Nashville Repertory Theatre's 35th season opening production) director Jason Tucker's fast-paced and quick-witted vision that's nothing short of mesmerizingly entertaining? We'll leave that up to you to decide - well, actually, we won't since that's why I am paid the big bucks to tell you what to think - but rest assured that no matter the reason, odds are you're going to love Nashville Rep's iteration of Urinetown and you'll want to score tickets before the show evaporates into the creative ether encircling Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Johnson Theatre.
With yet another stunning Gary C. Hoff set upon which to play, director Tucker and his delightful cast - a blend of Nashville theater royalty (Chip Arnold, Matthew Carlton, Samuel Whited, Rona Carter, Scott Rice, Megan Murphy Chambers, Tamiko Robinson Steele, Derek Whittaker, Garris Wimmer - truly an embarrassment of stageworthy riches), some up-and-coming pretenders to the throne (including Galen Crawley and her real-life spouse Jacob York, who've charmed audiences in previous Rep assignments), promising newcomers (Meggan Utech, Mike Sallee, Maria Logan, Juan Graterol and Ayla Williams) and two particularly impressive young actors come back to their hometowns for superb onstage turns (Mitchell Ryan Miller and Mariah Parris) - Urinetown the Musical provides a portentous gateway to Nashville Rep's 35th anniversary season that's likely to have audiences abuzz for weeks to come.
Chances are if you are a lover of all things theatrical, you have encountered the Urinetown musical phenomenon on other stages: It's one of the most popular titles to be found in regional, academic and community theater circles. But if you're like me and haven't yet seen the show before this particularly trenchant and downright fun production under Tucker's seasoned, if madcap, hand, let me be the first to tell you that Kotis and Hollman's musical does exactly what all good theater does - it makes you think! Urinetown challenges any preconceived notions you might have and encourages you to consider the themes and issues raised by the sharply written material even as you leave the theater with a spring in your step and a need to take a piss.
Set in a dystopian future (what isn't these days?) in which falling water levels have reduced (or perhaps "elevated" is the better choice of words) basic human needs to urinate and defecate (we won't even consider social conventions like doing laundry or shampooing one's hair) to daily ecological events, Urinetown also offers commentary on musical comedy tropes (there are affectionate, if somewhat derisive, nods to The Cradle Will Rock, Les Miserables and The Threepenny Opera - and virtually every other musical theater offering in which the people are oppressed and plotting revolution), political dysfunction, social responsibility and corporate greed. And although Urinetown the Musical opened on Broadway in the aftermath of 9/11, its vivid storytelling and intriguingly delivered message seems even more prescient today in Trump's gold-plated, populist-driven America.
Like the very best in theater, Urinetown the Musical is a universal tale, no matter its comedic underpinnings, and it resonates deeply with audiences in these unsettled times. Congratulations to Nashville Rep for once again capturing lightning in a bottle with this timely production.
In Urinetown (both the musical and the fictional burg in which it is set - or is it?), the UGC (which stands for "Urine Good Company," pun resoundingly intended) corporation, under the leadership of the evil and nefarious Caldwell B. Cladwell (played with unctuous charm and confidence by Chip Arnold) has determined how to benefit from the water shortage and the need for fewer flushes and keeping the streets free of urine by restricting private bodily functions to his company's collection of pay toilets, which are overseen by a coterie of employees throughout the city whose job it is to collect payments and to prevent citizens from dropping trou and going on the everyday lamppost or behind the bushes during late night gambols. The dramatic conceit might seem a fortuitous invention of the writers, but the prevalence of pay toilets in major cities should be enough to have the necessary effect upon one's bladder.
As the plot of the musical progresses, it becomes clear that the proletariat won't continue to acquiesce to the desires of their urinal-possessed overlords and the ensuing tensions - both political and romantic, believe it or not, although that seems to be the stock in trade for musical comedies, after all - helps to foment rebellion, led by the strong-jawed, fresh-faced and stalwart young Bobby Strong (played with all the leading bona fides afforded the aforementioned Mitchell Ryan Miller) who has become smitten, in the way all musical leading men are inclined, with a winsome and beauteous young woman named Hope (the wonderfully sincere Mariah Parris, who displays all the requisite qualities one expects of an ingenue) who, we learn in very short order, is the daughter of the demonic senior Caldwell.
What happens next is the stuff of theatrical legend, if you will, with every expected musical theater trope thrown into the mix for added oomph(!). The story might be the slightest bit fantastical (okay, we'll say it's "over-the-top" in the very best sense of the phrase) and it is too twee for words and perhaps even too cute by half, but somehow it works thanks to the edginess of the material when wed to the preciousness of musical theater.
Messrs. Kotis and Hollmann provide the words and music that sets Urinetown apart from other musicals (at the 2002 Tony Awards, it competed with Mamma Mia and Sweet Smell of Success, before losing out to Thoroughly Modern Millie for the year's best musical honor) and guaranteeing its rarefied stature among musical theater aficionados, while engaging casual theater-goers with its searing social commentary. Is it the stuff of an extended Saturday Night Live sketch? Yeah, kinda. But that's a superfluous and uninformed opinion, truth be told, because Urinetown is so much more than that (plus, it makes grand use of the night's musical guests throughout, so that's cool, right?).
The success and impending critical and public adulation afforded Nashville Rep's Urinetown rests in the skillful and self-assured hands of director Tucker and his creative team (which includes assistant musical director Kelsi Fulton, choreographer Pam Atha and designers Gary C. Hoff, Randy Craft, Dalton Hamilton, Colleen Garaoni and Amanda Creech, technical director Christopher L. Jones and production stage manager Teresa Driver). They deserve all the accolades for creating a production that is endlessly engaging and altogether charming.
Who would have ever thought a critic would find the subject of public urination charming? But there you have it. Credit must be given to Tucker's splendid ensemble of actors who, as previously mention, represent a wide range of local talents given the opportunity to take the stage in such compelling and entertaining fashion.
Jacob York (as Officer Lockstock) serves as the show's narrator, guiding audience members through the complex storyline and offering commentary on the very art form that is musical comedy, and Galen Crawley provides him with strong support as Little Sally, a street urchin with amazing candor and discernment. York and Crawley help to keep all the moving parts in motion, while ensuring audiences have all the necessary information to stay focused even while succumbing to fits of laughter and unrestrained ovations.
Miller is particularly well-cast as the inspiring Bobby Strong. Fresh-faced and appealing, it's easy to understand why legions (well, maybe a baker's dozen of actors fill the stage with such verve that one imagines them to be "legions") of people will follow him and he leads them in Act Two's gospel-flavored "Run, Freedom, Run!" with enough evangelical fervor to exhort them to heroism and revolution. Miller is paired with the equally well-suited Parris, who possesses an almost indefinable star quality that rivets all eyes on her the moment she takes the stage. Most important, however, is how authentically Miller and Parris derive believable, accessible characters from such broadly written roles. Be forewarned: you're going to fall it love with both of them before the night is done.
Arnold is superb as the deceitful Cladwell and Megan Murphy Chambers very nearly steals the entire production away from the rest of the talented ensemble as the mysterious Penelope Pennywise, the overseer of Public Amenity No. 9. Chambers again shows off unerring onstage skills, commanding every scene with aplomb - if there is a more watchable musical theater actor in Nashville, show her to me now.
As Cladwell's toadies, Derek Whittaker (as the effete and appropriately named Mr. McQueen) and Matthew Carlton (as the smarmy Senator Fipp, who apparently resides in Caldwell B. Cladwell's back pocket) display their own ample comedic chops, while Samuel Whited is terrific as Officer Barrel, a policeman with a romantic secret.
Hoff's set, which features everything from moving staircases, a fireman's pole, chutes and ladders and clever additions that move on and offstage with unparalleled ease, provides the perfect setting for the madcap adventures upon which our cast is taken. Hamilton's lighting design bathes the stage with what appears to be urine-soaked amber hues, while Garatoni's exquisite costumes (whether the garments worn by the unwashed poor or the glittery finery sported by the upper classes) are wonderfully theatrical.
Atha's inspired choreography propels the play's action ever forward and musical direction provided by Tucker and Fulton results in some top-flight numbers that evoke all your favorite Broadway musicals.
And I am now done writing about Urinetown the Musical, although there's so much more to say, but I really have to pee...
Urinetown the Musical. Music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann. Book and lyrics by Greg Kotis. Directed by Jason Tucker. Choreographed by Pamela Atha. Presented by Nashville Repertory Theatre at the Andrew Johnson Theatre at Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through September 29. For details, go to www.nashvillerep.org or call (615) 782-4040 for tickets. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
photos by Michael Scott Evans