Review: Urinetown by SummerStock Austin
by Brian Paul Scipione
You’re In It Now: Stepping Gingerly into Urinetown: The Musical
Two minutes into the opening number of Urinetown, I felt my heart give a quiet groan: was I really about to witness two straight hours of potty humor? There must have been at least twenty different sweetly sung references to micturition in the first two minutes alone and with "p" being such an easy letter to rhyme, it could go on as long as rest-stop after a four hour car ride.....
Fortunately, this was far from the case. Lyricists Mark Hollmann (who also wrote the music) and Greg Kotis seemed to void themselves on the subject promptly. The plot takes over, rapidly revealed by a narrator who steps out of the story to make sardonic remarks about the play’s action and about the genre of musical theatre. One hardly has time to worry about the plot, for the musical numbers are at the forefront and they frolic and twist through various genres and moods with the playfulness of a child choosing records by the covers alone.
Urinetown is a Tony-award-winning musical that debuted on Broadway in 2001. Its odd title, subject matter, and blatant, yet tongue in check, anti-musical commentary caused the creators some trouble in finding it a home. They succeeded in placing it the New York International Fringe Festival.
Fans of musical theatre will quickly see that the play is in a large part a send-up of Broadway darling Les Misérables. Essentially, in this world the right to be free becomes the right to pee. The denizens of an un-named town are afflicted by a ten-year drought and oppressed by the nefarious Caldwell Cladwell He owns all the public amenities and charges for each and every use. Strict laws prohibit using anything but these public toilets. When the Urine Good Company decides to raise the admission fee yet again the time is ripe for revolution. This revolution is led by the proto-typical musical hero, Bobby Strong, a feisty young man with a heart of a gold, a vision, and, of course, a love interest in none other than Hope Cladwell, the daughter of his sworn enemy.
SummerStock Austin is a whole other story. The concept of allowing non-company members to participate as ‘stock’ members in a theatre company originated in New England more than eighty years ago. Founded seven years ago, SummerStock Austin gives performers from high schools and universities the chance not only to learn by working with professionals but also to show off their chops in their own show. This season they’re also tackling two other productions: The Producers and A Year with Frog and Toad.
In the audience for Urinetown you’ll quickly realize that it matters not at all that the cast is compromised of students. This is one of the most seamless productions I have seen in the 2011 season in Austin. The rhythm of the piece is commendable: this show of just under two hours doesn’t lose a moment to boredom or hesitation. Every minute is filled -- with a laugh, a sigh, or more preponderantly a toe-tapping musical number. While each song embraces a different musical style (gospel, Americana, ballad, etc), all are unapologetically in the over-the-top, show-tune vein. The social commentary isn’t stifled completely, but the pantomiming and the near-constant dancing leaves little time for political rumination.
All those involved acquit themselves with aplomb. As always there are some few stunning stand-outs. These include the sidesplitting tap-dance Mikayla Agrella (Hope) performs while gagged and tied to a chair, the convincing and devilish deviousness of Zach Green (Cladwell), the persnickety and persistent antics of Sohpia Franzella (Little Sally), the sublime singing voice of Kristi Brawner (Pennywise) and whoever was perfectly channeling Scooby Doo ever time the ensemble was called upon to collectively say “Huh?” The fact that Urinetown is presented in the air-conditioned splendor of the Long Center’s Rollins Theatre does not hurt, either.
701 Riverside at South First,
Austin, TX, 78704