by SOPHIE KERMAN
On the opening night of URINETOWN: the Musical, Jungle Theater Artistic Director Bain Boehlke proclaimed that this was sure to be the “runaway hit of the summer.” Artistic hubris? No, Boehlke is absolutely right. With a brutally sharp message and a five-star cast that can sing and dance like Lyndale Ave is the next Broadway, Urinetown is one of a handful shows I have seen that I would enthusiastically recommend to just about everyone I know, regardless of whether they even say they like musicals.
Let’s start with the premise: due to extreme shortages of flushable water, the Urine Good Company has privatized all toilet facilities and is charging fees in order to pee. The users of Amenity #9 – the “poorest, filthiest urinal in town” – are struggling to scrape together the pennies they need in order to use the facilities, and all it takes is a few small sparks and for the idealistic Bobby Strong (Patrick Morgan) ignite the powder keg of revolution.
This is a very Brechtian musical with clear political commentary about corporate greed and sustainability, characters that talk to the audience, and a narrator (Officer Lockstock, played by the powerful baritone Bradley Greenwald) who draws our attention to the show’s many metaphors. It would be a clunky device if it didn’t work so well, and the reason we can buy into all that self-aware performance works is because the show is really funny. The book, music, and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis fully exploit all the juiciest tropes, from the wide-eyed ingenue Hope Cladwell (Tiffany Seymour) to the rich supervillain, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Gary Briggle) with a hilariously brutal take on survival of the fittest (“Don’t Be the Bunny”). The most memorable songs are spoofs of other musicals, like the Gilbert & Sullivan style “Cop Song” to the Les Misérables takeoff “Look at the Sky”. And since the most pointed social critiques are often given in the form of a clever rhyme, we are right on board with the show’s message.
And I mentioned the fantastic ensemble: under John Command‘s direction and precise, varied choreography, all 23 cast members shine (through Kathy Kohl‘s artfully filthy costumes). Greenwald stands out for his narration and comic rapport with his partner on the force, Officer Barrel (Jon Whittier), while Kersten Rodau as Penelope Pennywise displays some stunning vocals and the attitude to match. Elisa Pluhar was also a delight as Little Sally; never have I seen an adult woman play a kid so well. The live (backstage) band under Raymond Berg‘s direction also deserves some major applause for playing some fast, energetic music for practically two hours straight.
It feels like a special treat to be able to see a relatively small space like the Jungle Theater come to life with large-scale production numbers, great music, and powerful vocal performances. For at least $25 a ticket (on Tuesday nights), the show isn’t quite as accessible-to-all as the residents of Urinetown might like, but if you dip into your piggy bank for any show this summer, this is the one to see.