BWW Review: URINETOWN at TheatreLAB Is a Stunning and Hilarious Anti-Holiday Musical
For an antidote to holiday treacle overload, look no further than TheatreLAB's superb production of "Urinetown." Written by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis (who have graced the musical comedy canon with nothing beyond this work), the show was an Off-Broadway sensation that moved to Broadway in 2001, just after 9/11. The Brechtian, dystopian feel of the musical surprisingly suited the mood in those dark days, and it went on to win many awards, including Tonys for Best Book and Best Score.
We're in a world where a water shortage has led to severe restrictions around human waste (Christmassy, right?). In an allegedly humanitarian move, the Urine Good Company has moved in to clean up the environment by providing mandatory-use pay toilets. Penelope Pennywise runs Public Amenity 9, in a poor section of town, with our hero Bobby Strong as her flunky, managing the long line of impecunious proletarians waiting to pee.
Much is explained by the menacing Officer Lockstock, who enforces the regulations (no peeing in the bushes) and sends offenders to Urinetown. Caldwell B. Cladwell runs Urine Good Company, and his daughter Hope has just returned from "the most expensive university in the world" to work as a fax-and-copy girl for the firm. Of course, she meets Bobby, they fall for each other, and political upheaval ensues. The agitprop presentation of the show, the beautiful songs and the nonstop comedy combine to magical effect.
TheatreLAB's production looks like it was directed by someone with a vision. That would be Matt Polson, who infuses the action with a strong sense of style and mission. You can imagine Polson engaging a cast of fully committed actors, telling them to dial everything up to 11, and setting them loose, keeping the best bits they could devise.
And there are hundreds of choice moments of amazing physical and vocal specificity. It's hard to resist the chance to simply list them, but suffice to say that Michaela Nicole is devastatingly nasty and sexy as Penelope Pennywise; Kelsey Cordrey is amazing as the baby-talking Little Sally; Anne Michelle Forbes and Allison Paige Gilman spit fire as Soupy Sue and Little Becky Two Shoes. Madison Hatfield's Hope Cladwell is the perfect manic ingénue, and the wonderful Luke Schares is terrifyingly focused as her father, Caldwell B. Cladwell. Bianca Bryan morphs seamlessly into the menacing Officer Lockstock (plenty of gender-neutral casting here).
At a still higher level is Matt Shofner as Bobby Strong. This is a performance with so many well-considered, precisely rendered details that it takes your breath away. Each movement, each word, each glance looks machine-honed (in a good way).
Somewhat less precise but still full of manic energy are Maggie Bavolack, Levi Meerovich and Lennon Hu as assorted characters (Polson has melded some roles in novel ways). Meerovich and musical director Travis West man onstage pianos while Bavolack accompanies them with occasional clarinet support, and someone has convinced onstage drummer Joe Lubman to spend the entire show wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask.
The score is beautifully sung, with astonishing choral work. (Jason Marks is credited as music supervisor.) Connor Potter's multilevel set works well, and Michael Jarrett's lighting design is complex and effective. Nicole Morris-Anastasi provides excellent choreography that extends Polson's vision, and Ruth Hedberg's costumes are particularly witty, with interchangeable shirtfronts and the odd free-floating cuff.
The hilarity is balanced by an undercurrent of reality-our climate situation is, of course, much worse now than it was in 2001. But if you enjoy your doom and gloom accented with zany satire, this is the show for you.
TheatreLAB at The Basement, 300 E. Broad St.
Through December 28
Info at theatrelabrva.org or (804) 306-3533
Photo credit: Tom Topinka