Review: URINETOWN at Workhouse Arts Center

Urinetown: The Musical runs from now until June 3rd in Lorton, VA.

Review: SWEENEY TODD at Signature Theatre

There is something I learned about Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman's 2001 hit satire URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL after seeing the production this weekend at Workhouse Arts Center. I've seen it several times over the years in various settings, but I finally realized that URINETOWN is a deceivingly difficult piece to produce. I don't mean it requires an elaborate set, detailed period costumes, or a million dollar budget. It's difficult in that it's a comedy that requires trust in the material. There's a delicate balance necessary as jokes can't be overplayed or they'll fall flat. With comedy like this, sometimes less is more. Great comedians master this art, and it's why we still talk about them to this day.

URINETOWN is a musical comedy parody mixtape that samples musical theatre canon, political humor, Bertolt Brecht, and a little Kurt Weill just for good measure. It's a piece that is inherently funny. The actors needn't force the issue; the material can survive on its own. For Workhouse Arts Center's production of URINETOWN, the lack of trust in the material's inherent comedy presents a problem. While the vocals are terrific and rival some of the finest you'll hear in the DMV, the company's tendency to "ham up" the comedy sometimes works against and not in support of the already-good material. The humor resembles what you'd see in a Charlie Chaplin film, and although that's usually an excellent source to draw inspiration from, it doesn't always work here. The key word in this criticism is "sometimes" as there are several moments that work blissfully well and stand out above those that don't.

One of the show's narrators, Little Sally (played by an entertaining Mel Gumina), comments in the show's opening number that strong material is usually a sign of a good show. Perhaps a reflection on this part of the show's exposition could have strengthened the comedy and made what was a solid production a great one. As several comedians have been credited with saying in the past "dying is easy, comedy is hard." We won't cover the first part of the phrase here, but the latter certainly does resonate.

URINETOWN begins by introducing us to a down-on-its-luck, industrial town where the population is out of work, out of money, and forced to pay a fee to...well...use the facilities. In this town, there's been a 20-year drought that's led to government enforcement of water regulation and, therefore, a banning of private toilets. "Pay-to-use" facilities are the solution, and they're run by a private company - a big corporation owned by the show's villain, Caldwell B. Cladwell (played by a superb Brian Lyons-Burke).

It's "a privilege to pee" in these parts, and the phrase is a double entendre of sorts as it is truly the privileged who can afford to use the facilities without worry. If you can't pay, or simply refuse to do so, you either hold it indefinitely (not recommended) or get hauled off to the dreaded Urinetown (equally not recommended). As the show's narrator Officer Lockstock (played by an over-the-top Bob Gudauskas) explains, we won't get to see Urinetown until Act II. He's right, but I won't spoil the surprise of what it looks like. Just know you very much do not want to go there.

It isn't hard to tell the good guys from the bad as the story goes on. The bad guys are the corporate fat cats - Caldwell B. Cladwell (Lyons-Burke), Mr. McQueen (played by Daniel Lakin), and Senator Fipp (played by a delightful Apollo Yang), to name a few. Though not getting as filthy rich as those at the top, several others in the town are part of the grift including Officer Lockstock (the aforementioned Gudauskas), Officer Barrel (played by a subtly funny Alden Michels), and Penelope Pennywise (played by a charming Jolene Vettese). In control of the most in demand business in town, this circle gets rich while the little guys struggle to make enough scratch to perform their natural bodily functions.

Of course, in every self-respecting musical comedy, there's a good guy to fight against the forces of evil. In URINETOWN, it's Bobby Strong (played by a charismatic Ashton Schaffer) who inspires his fellow townspeople to rise up against the corporate greed in their town. The fire that lights the match of revolution comes after Strong's father (Preston Grover) cannot pay the fee to use the toilet, relieves himself in public anyways, and gets hauled off to the dreaded "Urinetown." The younger Strong whips the other commoners into a frenzy as they begin to fight for the right to relieve themselves free-of-charge. It's here that Schaffer delivers one of Strong's iconic songs, "Look at the Sky," which was unfortunately one of the production's slower tempos of the evening. Normally a driving anthem, the tempo slammed the brakes on a rather pivotal moment in the show, in which Schaffer's A+ vocals stood no chance.

As support for the revolution builds, Cladwell's daughter, Hope (played by a delightful Amanda Mason), becomes an unexpected ally and serves as the show's ingenue. There's romance between Bobby and Hope (because what great musical comedy doesn't feature romance between the two young stars), but Bobby has a revolution to lead. He, in fact, uses Hope as a hostage to gain leverage over the elder Cladwell as the show races towards the end of Act I.

As we enter Act II, we see Hope "bound and tied" by the mob as Hot Blades Harry (played by an energetic Shakil Azizi) celebrates with the other revolutionaries now that they have the ultimate leverage over Cladwell ("Snuff That Girl"). It's a shame Azizi's Harry only gets one song as it's one of the more distinct and well-defined featured players of the production. There are several recurring jokes that fall flat throughout, but Azizi's bits as Harry are not among these. Now without a daughter or the upper hand, Cladwell is forced to negotiate with Strong in a scene akin to the climax of NEWSIES when Pulitzer and Jack Kelly finalize the terms to end the newsboy strike. However, Strong meets a very different fate than Kelly and the newsboys.

There's several twists and turns from here, with comedic reveals along the way, but nothing is as it seems. Everyone loses in their own way, and those looking for a traditional, feel-good musical should look elsewhere. As narrators Officer Lockstock and Little Sally astutely remind us, this is not a happy musical, after all.

Debuting in 2001, URINETOWN was a hit from the jump. It won several Tony, Outer Critics Circle, Lortel, and Obie Awards. Its satirical style and biting humor taking shots at capitalism and the false hierarchies it creates, dizzying bureaucracy, and unchecked corporate greed are executed with precision and skill. It was original in its time, but Workhouse's production relies on comedic conventions of musical theatre that take away some of that uniqueness. In fact, there's one particular comedic bit that the entire cast takes part in at various points in the show that becomes overplayed by the third or fourth repeat. Though not the first to do it, it's a bit that was executed to perfection by Danny Burstein in THE DROWSY CHAPERONE almost two decades ago on The Great White Way. It unfortunately doesn't achieve the intended effect here.

Nevertheless, the ensemble is chocked full of expert vocalists, which are without a doubt the highlight of the production. Kudos to Music Director Paige Austin Rammelkamp who ensures the score is belted to perfection as the immense vocal talents of the cast gloriously fill the intimate space in Lorton, Virginia. It's worth the price of admission itself and covers up the show's other shortcomings.

Though the ensemble is great, it does present a challenge for the production's star players. Schaffer's Strong in particular struggles at times to distinguish himself from the ensemble, but he gets it mostly right when it comes to playing the straight man to set up the other character's comedic bits. It's a thankless job in comedy, but someone must do it. Audiences will further delight in Mason's Hope Cladwell, which is absolutely terrific, as well as Lyons-Burke's rich baritone voice and villainy presence as the elder Cladwell.

Though the comedic bits don't always work, it's good material we're working with here. The overall product is good, the music great, the story intriguing, and the jokes abundant. Much like it was in 2001, you won't see many other shows quite like this one.

URINETOWN runs at Lorton, Virginia's Workhouse Arts Center from now until June 3, 2023. The book is by Greg Kotis, music by Mark Hollman, and lyrics by both Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman. The production is directed by Dan Stapula with choreography by Stefan Sitting. Other company members include Paige Austin Rammelkamp (Music Director), Ariel Kraje (Asst. Choreographer/Dance Captain), Marty Bernier (Props Design), Priscilla Stapula (Costume Design), Christina Giles (Lighting Design), and Lauren Sullivan (Makeup Design).

Urinetown runs approximately 2 hrs 15 mins with 1 intermission. For tickets, please visit the website at Click Here.

Photo courtesy of Kayla Garcia.


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