Urinetown is a relief from typical musicals

by Beacon Staff • September 28, 2005

What happens when someone dares to go against the system? In the Lyric Stage Company's production of Urinetown: The Musical, this old question is answered in a whole new way with the new twist of bodily functions. The show, a musical tale of repression and rebellion currently being performed at the YWCA on Clarendon Street, is entertaining, thought-provoking and just plain hilarious.

Set in a Gotham-like city of the future, Urinetown: The Musical tells the story of a city which, suffering from a drought, sets up public restrooms and charges its citizens to use them. If caught disobeying the law, citizens are taken by the local police to Urinetown, a legendary place of horror and fear from which no one returns. None of the citizens know exactly what Urinetown is, but the stories of its terror abound.

After seeing his father arrested and taken away, Bobby Strong, a young idealist, decides to lead a revolution against the law. He gets more than he bargained for, however, when he falls in love with Hope Cladwell, the daughter of the man in charge of the system.

A self-conscious satire of musicals, Urinetown is narrated by two characters who are also part of the story. Officer Lockstock and Little Sally converse with the audience and each other for the duration of the play, offering commentary on the events during the show.

Veronica J. Kuehn, who plays Little Sally, serves as the voice of reason throughout the show. Conversing with Officer Lockstock, she innocently asks the basic questions that no one else addresses. At one point, she indignantly queries, "What kind of musical is this?" to question the show's unconventional ending.

Filled with musical numbers, Urinetown features songs incorporating various aspects of theater history. "Mr. Cladwell" imitates classic musical theatre and the Act I finale is wonderfully reminiscent of the revolutionary story Les Miserables. Moreover, the dance routines in "Snuff That Girl" and "What Is Urinetown?" take inspiration from West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof.

The script contains a delicate balance of humor and absurdity and the cast maintains that balance skillfully. While the show is filled with laughs, it is never portrayed as ridiculous.

Maintaining that balance was a challenge, according to Haley Roth, a senior BFA musical theatre major at Emerson who works as a "swing," playing multiple roles each night. Roth said the humor in the script could have easily been overplayed and caused the show to lose its underlying meaning.

"We were concentrating on making it as real as we could while appreciating the humor we could get out of it," Roth said. "It was fun going in and finding things that we could play with."

Roth said the cast attempted to strip the show of any absurdity while rehearsing.

"When you approach something from a completely realistic level-bare bones-absurdity just comes from it naturally," Roth said. "The subject is completely absurd, but it's most interesting for the audience, like it's real for us and it's actually happening. It was difficult to keep it real. The thing that our director said over and over was 'Keep it ground in reality.'"

The balance comes from the skill of the actors. The cast is excellent, with both the principals and supporting roles giving impressive performances. As Bobby Strong, Emerson alumnus Rob Morrison is both idealistic and heroic. His level of comedic timing, combined with his strong singing and dancing skills, create the essential musical theatre hero.

Jennifer Ellis is sweet and stylish as Hope Cladwell, who is torn between loyalty to her father and the boy she loves, and Sean McGuirk gives a slick and clever performance as her father, Caldwell B. Cladwell. Maryann Zschau, as the lusty Miss Pennywise, is both entertaining and emotional.

In order to prepare for his role as Bobby, Morrison said he looked at Adam West, the star of the 1960s "Batman" series, for inspiration.

"Bobby's a very sincere and earnest person," Morrison said. "He's very good hearted. But in being so sincere, he says a lot of stupid things-a lot of things that would kind of let the audience hit their foreheads and do a double take. West was also old fashioned ... it's the same kind of melodrama that's in Urinetown."

With political, economical and social messages, Urinetown packs a great deal of drama into two acts. Morrison said the messages were difficult to portray and the longer he studied the script, the more he appreciated it.

"What Urinetown is about to me is how difficult it is to communicate with the audience something that is an important message," Morrison said. "It says, 'Hey, this is our message, but you're probably not going to get it or listen to it.' The audience understands that the play is about more than it seems to be, even if they don't always get it."

Morrison said he sees the accomplishments of Urinetown as a sign the direction that musical theatre could go in.

"Hopefully they walk out with the notion that musical theatre is a fun, original process that can make fun of itself," he said.

"I think Urinetown is a show that is a testament to how musical theatre can survive and change. Hopefully we'll see more shows like it."

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