Reviewed by Will Stackman
This burlesque built on cliches from musicals with a social message would probably be funnier--and less relevant--if we hadn't just been watching the mismanaged disaster following hurricane Katrina. When the road show version played Boston two winters ago, Urinetown didn't attract a huge audience, and seemed a bit too distant in the Colonial's large proscenium. And maybe the title is still a bit off-putting. On the Lyric's three-quarter stage with actors in the aisles, however, the show seems more at home. Officer Lockstock's narration, handled deftly by Christopher Chew, who was playing the male lead in A Little Night Music this time last fall, gets directly to the audience. His sidekick, Little Sally, played by BosCon student Veronica J. Kuehn, seen last spring as Little Red in the New Rep's Into the Woods, doesn't have to push to get her wisecracks over. The Lyric's longtime diva, IRNE winner Marianne Zschau, last fall's Desiree, is Ms. Pennywise, making her asides count and selling "It's a Privilege to Pee" as only she can. The villain of the piece, Caldwell B. Cladwell, owner of the Urine Goodhands Corp, is done by IRNE winner, Sean McGuirk, seen last month in a world premiere at the Gloucester Stage. He wasn't in A Little Night Music last fall because he was doing Company for Speakeasy at the BCA. Urinetown's hero, Bobby Strong, however, is recent Emerson College grad, Rob Morrison, who brings fresh naivete to the role. And his true love, Hope Cladwell, , is played by Jennifer Ellis, a recent Bridgewater State grad. Both not only have effective musical theatre voices honed in college shows, but project a kind of innocence which makes this uneasy fantasy almost believable.
IRNE winning director Spiro Veloudos' high powered casting continues with the return of Peter A. Carey, Peter Edmund Haydu, and Robert Saoud, who've each been seen in major roles at the Lyric in past seasons. Carey plays Bobby's doomed father in the first act--complete with the spray can of mist--and murderous Hot Blades Harry in the second. Haydu is oily Senator Fipp, Cladwell's bought and paid for legislator, while Saoud is Barrel, Lockstock's compatriot. The show's choreographer, IRNE winner Ilyse Robbins joins the ensemble as well as Little Becky Two-Shoes and Dance Captain as well. And of course, the music director is IRNE winner Jonathan Goldberg deftly conducting and ensemble of five from the keyboard above the stage. The set design by Norton awardee Janie E. Howland has the decayed industrial look associated with this show, while IRNE winner Karen Perlow from MIT provides her usual first class lighting. Emerson's Rafael Jaen provides appropriately scruffy costumes for the users of Amenity #9, which work well in the various dance numbers, while allowing the ensemble to change back and forth quickly for their other roles as Caldwell's employees. All-in-all, a collection of talent that could make even a less engaging show shine.
This Tony award-winning show may have started out as a no-budget entry in the summer Fringe Festival in NYC, but managed to grow into an effective contemporary musical, even while playing with the form. Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann's Urinetown is clearly in the tradition begun by Brecht & Weill, and continued by Marc Blitzstein and lesser lights of the '30s. Its score echoes other significant contributions to the genre without descending to parody, at least where the music and lyrics are concerned. Another advantage to the Lyric's intimate space is that more of their witty songs can be thoroughly understood. This show's success has spawned a host of lesser imitations, as witness this summer's Fringe collection. Few seemed to have achieved its satirical intent however, or the quality of Hollmann's musical invention. This is not a show easily imitated, and indeed, Kotis and Hollmann's latest project, which premiered this summer, is an adaptation of The Man in the White Suit, a much more subtle political fable with a more conventional plot, even given its science-fiction premise.