Name it, and “Urinetown: The Musical” satirizes it.
Corporate greed, populism, city politics and environmental disaster. Throw in the near sacred traditions of modern musical theater, and you have the ingredients for a sharp, self-reflective and tuneful only-in-America musical.
The Fort Lewis College Theatre Department will open “Urinetown: The Musical” tonight on the MainStage. The show will run two weekends with one matinee this Sunday. If you like “Cabaret,” “Chicago” and other Brechtian offspring, you will relish “Urinetown.”
Co-conceived in 1998 by composer Mark Hollmann and lyricist Greg Kotis, “Urinetown” was first presented at Theater of the Apes in 1999 within the New York International Fringe Festival. It opened off-Broadway at the American Theatre of Actors on May 6, 2001, and went on to win Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Original Score. In short, it had a meteoric rise from fringe festival beginnings to a Broadway run and now regional and college theaters.
“Urinetown” is set in a dystopian future where 20 years of drought have necessitated extreme water restrictions. Private bathrooms have been outlawed and public pay toilets charge high fees. Urine Good Company or UGC controls everything, including politicians who set the fees. Poor citizens mount a protest after new fees are arbitrarily applied.
Because the plot is an environmental satire set in the near future, you might expect that the music would follow a similar satiric model. It does. Every song is either a direct parody of a number from modern musical theater or stylistically similar.
It would take several viewings to pinpoint parallels, but that game distracts you from the cohesive nature of this clever piece. At the end of Act I, for example, it’s blatantly obvious that the revolt parody springs from “Les Miz.” Empowered citizens sing and march in front of a huge waving flag. That the flag is yellow, not the French tricolor, reminds us that the Urinetown protest is about the freedom to pee, not the downfall of monarchy.
Earlier this week at dress rehearsal, “Urinetown” got a crisp run by a youthful and energetic cast. Director Ginny Davis, a veteran of musical theater herself, has pulled together a lively ensemble. With Choreographer Alyse Neubert, Davis has made complex scenes clear. Director and choreographer have skillfully merged dialogue with song and dance, employed follow spots, freeze-frame action, stage placement, and contrasting groups to illuminate a plot point and move the story forward.
Like “Cabaret” and other musical cousins, “Urinetown” uses a narrator. Officer Lockstock (Harrison Wendt) welcomes us to the theater, comments on what’s happening, what’s ahead, and reminds us that this is “Urinetown: The Musical.” These self-referential loops serve to keep the audience in the realm of satire, at arms distance from the truths behind environmental degradation.
To underscore the relevance of “Urinetown: The Musical,” the theatre department will have one Talk Back, hosted by the Environmental Center, after Sunday’s matinee.
A panel of local elected officials will discuss how themes of regulation, resources and the democratic process relate to local challenges.
Participants include State Rep. Barbara McLachlan and LPEA’s Guinn Unger and others. The session is free.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.