BWW Review: St. Petersburg College Theater Department Offers a Spellbinding URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL

BWW Review: St. Petersburg College Theater Department Offers a Spellbinding URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL

It's always a pleasure when you see a show where everyone, the cast and the production team, obviously knows what they're doing. It's exciting to witness a performance where the stars align and everything seemingly goes right. (There's another kind of thrill when everything goes horribly wrong, but that's for a different review.) That was the case when I watched the St. Petersburg College Theater Department's production of URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL. Everything obviously went right.

URINETOWN (music by Mark Hollman, book by Greg Kotis, lyrics by both Hollman and Kotis) is not an easy musical to get right. I've seen several fine, if nothing special productions of it. But when it is done properly, as it has been done here, then it is a truly hilarious--and very scary--piece of theatre. Hilarious because it is so self-referential, a great piece of fourth-wall-breaking presentational theatre that doesn't lose its heart. It's scary, now more than ever, because crazy and inane as much of it is, it's also a possibility of our future landscape--a depressing dystopia where authoritarianism wins, and when it doesn't, mankind loses anyway. It's bleak stuff, and yet I haven't laughed so hard in a long time.

URINETOWN is one of the more assessible cult shows. Its storyline--a future world where people have to pay to pee--is not something you'd think would be part of a Tony-winning musical. But it's so smart, so incisive and funny, that everyone can enjoy it. Still, I haven't seen a production of it where I didn't have to run--and I mean RUN!--to the bathroom at Intermission.

This production of URINETOWN took a mere five weeks to mount. The students, both high school and college, helped with the sets, the sound, the lighting, all of the behind the scenes business as well as the performance aspect. Guided by true professionals, this was a gem of a production.

Before the show the actors playing the police officers wandered throughout the audience, taunting various viewers, getting us in the mode for this offbeat but spot-on production. One of the officers saw me writing in my pad. "I see you're writing," he said to me. "Some kind of secret message? I'm going to keep my eye on you." I later realized that the actor who told me that was Martin E. Powers, who played Officer Barrel in this production. With his weaselly Joe Pesci voice, he was quite the scene stealer.

There is not a dud in the large cast of high school and college students. Chelsea Hooker as Penelope Pennywise is so incredible onstage that the word "stunning" doesn't even begin to cover it. During her first number, I sat there, my mouth open, knowing I was in the presence of something special. This was a powerhouse performer up there, one of the best of the year anywhere. Queen Latifah, Patti LaBelle and Aretha Franklin better take notice. Ms. Hooker is a force of nature on that stage, and I can't wait for future shows where I can see that talent once again shine.

Ramiro Capano is quite strong as Bobby Strong (he better be, not just because the last name of his character is Strong, but because there's nothing worse than watching "Run, Freedom, Run" with a tepid, half-ass performer leading it). The love of Bobby's life, Hope Cladwell, is beautifully portrayed by Stephany Levi, who possesses an incredible singing voice, especially in "Follow Your Heart." At one point, she did as much as anyone can do when tied to a chair with a rag stuffed in her mouth.

As Hope's villainous dad, Cladwell B. Cladwell, Mario Gonzalez brings out a sort of inner-Trump that is horrifyingly mesmerizing. And his show-stopping Thumper-like bunny dance, in the outrageous number "Don't Be the Bunny," is something that I will not soon forget.

Joedan Bertke is quite funny as the show's narrator, Officer Lockstock. His talks with Little Sally (a perfect Sophie Tobin) are some of the highlights of the musical. Throughout the show, Tobin clutches a stuffed animal and at one point even puts a knife in its grasp (it's quite disarming seeing a stuffed animal clutching a blade).

The ensemble is nothing short of remarkable. They sound amazing with too-die-for harmonies (thanks to music director Latoya McCormick) and are lively in their dance numbers (thanks to choreographer Jessica Scruggs, who includes a nod to "West Side Story's" "Cool" at one point). The cast includes John Patrick Owens, Robby Rob, Greg Kirby, Graham Mastro, Quint Paxton, Eva Campuzano, Ashlyn Baralt, Matthew Greer, Lexi Brigantti, Gabrielle Fehring, Nickie Berlage, Gregory Wiederect, Madeline Boggess, Sierra McCreary, Megan Ramsey, Elizabeth Esry and Jason Calzon. Special mention must go to Christian Torres as Hot Blades Harry, Alex Groth as Soupy Sue and Rebekah Stevenson as the pregnant Little Becky Two Shoes as ensemble standouts.

Kristen Garza's set is a dystopian nightmare, grays and blacks, like an industrial building you'd find in Lynch's Eraserhead. Above it is the word URINETOWN in various colored lights (usually turning red or blue). It even lights up yellow with a single letter "P" during the song "Peeing is a Privilege." And there is a freaky flashlight dance at the end of the can't-get-it-out-of-my-head "Cop Song" that featured volunteers from the audience. I didn't want this to end. I sat there in awe, knowing that this light show, an outlandish surprise, is what I love about the theatre. We never know what to expect. I've seen URINETOWN on several occasions, but nothing like this.

Lighting designer Celeste N. Silsby Mannerud captured the mood of the piece perfectly; the lighting is almost like another character in the show. Spotlights play an especially important part of this production, so special attention must be paid to those in charge of it: high school students Rebecca Fritz and Jake Landhere. (Patrick Cruz was the light board operator.)

The sound was strong, with the exception of a microphone that went out during one of the songs, but the performer in question (Ms. Tobin) was so professional that we had no problem hearing her. Sean Hamilton was in charge of the sound design, and sound board operators included Jesse Latherow and Katy Rodney.

Katrina Stevenson's costumes worked quite well, right down to Cladwell's bunny slippers. The props are a hoot, including a Les Miz flag in "Act 1 Finale" made of toilet paper rolls.

And now we come to Scott Cooper, the director. We know that Mr. Cooper, the head of the St. Petersburg College Theater Department, is the God of Technical Theatre. But who knew he was an incredibly visionary director who gets the best out of his cast? Who knew that he mounted a sensational show as good as many of the professional ones I have seen of late? And why doesn't he direct more shows, even outside of the St. Petersburg Theater Department? Mr. Cooper has the four special ingredients that every director needs: A strong will, a keen eye, an inquisitive brain, and most important of all, a big heart. We need to see more shows that he helms. (I hope professional theaters in the area take notice of his abilities; this is one of the best directed shows I've seen all year.)

URINETOWN ends July 1st, but I won't soon forget it, not this production. It's funny and scary, bizarre and relatable. And everyone in it is on their A-Game. Out of all of the summer camp, high school and college productions I have seen recently, it's the one to beat.

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From This Author Peter Nason

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