Book by Greg Kotis
Music Mark Hollman
Lyrics by Kotis and Hollman
Directed by John Rando
Colonial Theatre
104 Boylston St., Boston Common / (617) 931-2787
Through Jan. 18, 2004

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Optimism is perhaps the single most endearing trait woven into the fabric of the American musical theatre. It was perhaps inevitable that a dystopian parody of the form would wind up being extremely self-referential. "Urinetown - the musical" probably won't provoke much environmental or social awareness, but the show might just encourage other newcomers to the field to broaden their focus and let a little more social criticism into their efforts to entertain. Unfortunately, it may also encourage them to pile on every dumb joke they know. One show like this a decade is probably enough.

Like any good burlesque, "Urinetown"-- just say it-- succeeds by excess. Its two pivotal narrative characters, Officer Lockstock, played with abandon by Tom Hewitt who got Tony and Drama Desk nominations for his lead in the 2001 "Rocky Horror", and Little Sally , played by a soubrette to watch, Meghan Strange, bring things back to the stage when musical magic has transported the show into Neverland. This allows the rest of the cast, including ensemble members double cast as both the Poor and the UGC staff, to play as broadly as possible at all times. One can imagine director John Rando issuing the same reminder over and over again; "Louder, faster, funnier. I'll tell you when to stop." Hewitt does get to go over the top leading the title number, however. The show might benefit from Little Sally getting her own moment as well, though Strange gets to shine in a duet with the leading man in Act II.

The most outrageous performance, however, belongs to Ron Holgate as villain Caldwell B. Cladwell, owner of the Urine Goodhands Corp. . His "Don't be the Bunny" just before the end of Act I can't be topped, so everyone just gets together and does a big musical number before intermission. Most such numbers focus around the proletarian hero, Bobby Strong, abley sung by Charlie Pollack, who did the role during the Broadway run. He doesn't try to make the role especially endearing, which plays to the Brechtian aspirations of the script. Christine Noll as Hope Cladwell, his upper crust sweetheart, has a much more varied role, from clueless coed to tragicomic heroine, while remaining the straightwoman of the piece, and final figurehead during the ironic "I See a River." This finale makes the best use of Scott Pask's steel construction set with one rolling staircase and a revolvcing wall for the two primary locations, the major hold-over from the show's root at the Off-Off Broadway Fringe Fest. That and the disco ball, the bubble machines, and the stage manager's spraycan of photographer's smoke effect.

The most interesting female role of the piece is Beth McVey's Penelope Pennywise, the Dickensian operator of Public Amenity #9 where much of the action occurs. Her larger-than-life presence allows the ensemble to ratchet up their peculiarities and keeps the melodrama humming along. But this character doesn't get a special song either. In fact, unlike most musical theatre, this show depends on ensemble numbers, with the principals set into them. Its reliance on the vivid minor characters lined up waiting to pee is part and parcel of the burlesque, and perhaps the most Brechtian part of its vision. Musically, though "Threepenny Opera" gets mentioned as a progenitor, "Urinetown" has more in common with Blitzstein's "The Cradle Will Rock", Weill's "Johnny Johnson" and "Street Scene", not to mention "Hair" and even "Godspell."

The core of the show, as mentioned, is its irreverent look at icons of post-Rodgers and Hammerstein musical theatre. "Les Mis..." probably takes the biggest hit, though choreographers, most obviously Fosse, are the most obvious target. John Carrafa, credited with musical staging, also uses a bit of Strouman, touches of Michael Bennet, and several references to "West Side Story", not to mention the current edition of "Chicago." Hollman's keyboard driven score may have begin with Weill's eccentric scales, but owes more to recent orchestrators, such as Sondheim or Harnick, with an overlay of gospel, always a crowd-pleaser even when used ironically. Most of all, this show has the irreverence of old-time collegiate parodies and the sense that, though the form is predictable, the outcome might not be. One of the images of the show's "dream" has the cast staring at the sun, which is of course a good way to go blind. Perhaps the author's background in political science has introduced a bit of structural criticism into the form. Let's hope that comment is corrective, and that he and Hollman have something different up their sleeve for their next show. And watch for a review of the New Rep's production of the Donmar Warehouse version of "Threepenny" is the next issue.

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