What if there was a water shortage so severe and long-lasting that a private bathroom became a thing of the past? What if you could only relieve yourself in a public toilet, and what if the privilege of using the public facilities came with a price, and an even higher cost for using the bushes? What if you had to pay, just to pee?
So goes the premise of “Urinetown: the Musical,” currently at TheatreLab. Set in a dystopian future where Urine Good Co., known as UGC, a megacorporation run by smug men in suits, manages and regulates everything pee-related, this show satirizes capitalism, corporate control, the legal system and, well, Broadway musicals too.
Under UGC’s rule, private peeing is a crime and offenders are sent away to Urinetown, a penal colony so awful the mere thought of it keeps citizens in line (for the bathroom). The show is well aware that it’s a musical, commenting on the format and structure of musicals and parodying quite a few, all the while telling a story that even the characters in the show admit is unusually strange and probably off-putting.
As one character puts it, “This isn’t a happy musical, Little Sally,” even though, as Little Sally is quick to point out, the songs are all quite happy and upbeat, a tonal disparity resulting in a lot of dark humor and more than a few moments of sheer absurdity.
It’s a tough show to pull off, but director Matt Polson has a great handle on the material, making the most of the tonal shifts, satire and metatheatricality of the script. His staging is dynamic and his cast of outstanding local talent delivers on every level.
As Bobby Strong, a custodian who leads a revolt against the oppressive powers that be, Matt Shofner is magnificently endearing, especially in scenes with his love interest, Hope Cladwell, played by Madison Hatfield, who really seemed to come into her own in this role, which felt like it was made for her. As Little Sally, the lisping, street-urchin and audience surrogate with a thousand questions, Kelsey Cordrey is hilarious. Bianca Bryan absolutely slays (pun intended) as Officer Lockstock, a sadistic cop who enforces the law with a taser and a wicked grin. Michaela Nicole gives a standout performance as Penelope Pennywise, the hard-hearted owner of the local toilets. I’ve been waiting to see her cast in a good, meaty role like this, and her rendition of “It’s a Privilege to Pee” is perfect. As Caldwell B. Cladwell, the chief executive of the company, Luke Schares is delightfully evil, dangling a vacation that never materializes before his employees and willingly sacrificing his daughter Hope in the name of profit. He and the entire cast steal the show with “Don’t Be the Bunny,” a song urging his daughter to choose a life of power, a life like his. Allison Paige Gilman assumes the role of the bunny in this musical number, and her energy and reactions to Schares and the rest of the cast are priceless. Maggie Bavolack is so good as the crotchety old man Strong and, later, his clueless wife Josephine Strong. Ensemble players Levi Meerovich, Lennon Hu and Anne Michelle Forbes all shine, as well.
Travis West takes on triple duty in this production, portraying Officer Barrel alongside Bryan’s Officer Lockstock, while acting as musical director and playing piano along with Meerovich. The band includes Hu on bass, Bavolack on clarinet, and drummer Joe Lubman, who wears a costume throughout the show, making him as much a part of the scene as any of the actors onstage. West’s musical direction forms the backbone of the show. These are great songs, performed well by a talented, multi-tasking cast.
Nicole Morris-Anastasi’s choreography is tongue-in-cheek, vibrant and funny, a source of great visual interest and physical humor in this production.
Connor Potter’s scenic design is utilitarian but full of surprises, and I particularly love the use of lengths of chain link fencing at both ends of the stage, with props dangling from hooks until actors need them. Michael Jarrett’s lighting design provides an added punch to silly moments, and, along with Joey Luck’s sound design, sets the tone for dreamy scenes and dark moments of despair.
Ruth Hedberg’s costumes are also funny, making use of mismatched patterns and lots of fishnet stockings to help create the feeling of hard, sometimes tawdry times. I especially enjoyed the quick costume changes that saw actors transitioning from the poor, downtrodden oppressed citizens to the well-dressed, uppercrust employees of UGC, with just the addition of a crisp white collar and a quick smoothing of the hair off the forehead.
I can’t stop gushing over “Urinetown.” I’m a sucker for anything meta, especially when it’s served up with a side of relevant, hard-hitting satire and genuinely good show tunes. But this production is so much more than that: It achieves a rare synergy. Each theatrical element complements the others, and all work in tandem to create an experience that is not to be missed, even if you’re not so sure about a musical with the word urine in the title.
TheatreLab’s “Urinetown: the Musical” runs until Dec. 28 at the Basement, 300 E. Broad St. theatrelabrva.org.