Urinetown (Phoenix Ensemble)
May 5 – 27
Urinetown is a kind of mythical place… like Venice, but different, filled with symbolism and things like that. But despite its titular significance, we won’t become directly acquainted with its reality until into Act Two of “Urinetown”, according to Officer Lockstock (Lachlan Clark), the pontificating policeman who grimly welcomes its audience, with assistance from 12-year-old street urchin Little Sally (Abby Page). From them we are taken to the first setting of Phoenix Ensemble’s show and told that a 20-year drought has caused a terrible water shortage, which has rendered the idea of private toilets as unthinkable. In immediate introduction to its meta style of calling out clichés and parodying genre tropes, that is all we are really given because overloading us with exposition could really kill the show.
As the action opens upon the filthy Public Amenity #9, the backstory unfolds as to the megacoporation control of Urine Good Company (or UGC). To control water consumption, people have to pay to use the amenities and harsh laws mean that if payment cannot be made, an offender is taken to Urinetown, never to return. Hopelessly down and out, and living in fear, the poor turn to the story’s dashing hero Bobby Strong (an excellent Isaac Tibbs), to stage a revolt in fight for the freedom to pee “wherever you like, whenever you like, for as long as you like, and with whomever you like.”. Along with just-returned-from university Hope Cladwell (Lauren Clark), who happens to be the beloved daughter of UGC’s corrupt CEO Caldwell B Cladwell (Caleb Holman), he embarks on a journey of love, justice and following his heart, only to be tested as secrets are revealed and alliances are fraught along the way to righting the wrongs of their world.
The self-aware satirical comedy musical “Urinetown” (with music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and book and lyrics by Greg Kotis) is likely to be unlike anything you have seen on stage, not just because it was the winner of three 2002 Tony Awards, including Best Book and Score, but due to its contrast of an infectiously merry score with the confrontation of its themes about climate change and corporate corruption. The story is full of clever twists and the less actually known of details the better, in order to fully appreciate the skill of its subversion of expectations.
A talented cast brings the story’s colourful characters to life. Lachlan Clark’s accomplished comic timing ensures that Longstock’s tongue-in-cheek commentary lands as intended and Page captures the plucky spirit of irreverent quasi-narrator Little Sally, often questioning Longstock as to the show’s logic, colouring his deadpan delivery style. Holman is formidable as the tyrannical Cladwell, especially in his ‘the powers that me’ attempts to justify the controlling consumption that characterises what the society of the story has become. Tibby makes Bobby a sincere and charismatic rebellion leader, ensuring that his heart-felt (#literally) romantic connection with Hope appears credible (in musical terms at least), despite its velocity. And Lauren Clark easily takes Hope from innocent new company fax/copy girl to a determined revolutionary. Also of particular note is Zoe Costello as Penelope Pennywise, the tough jaded warden of the poorest, filthiest town urinal.
Costello gives us an early show highlight in her belt out of “It’s a Privilege to Pee”, reminder of water’s worth in the brave new world of the story’s setting. Her voice is strong in sustain of its high-energy, offering up reminder of the bright tone and sustained notes expected of classic musical theatre numbers. Meanwhile, Tibbs’ tenor is flexible throughout and Clark is appropriately sweet-voiced as Hope, which makes their ‘Follow Your Heart’ a lovely duet of their fall in love moments. Indeed, these principal cast members’ vocals are the most pefect of any Phoenix show I have seen and their vocal amplification is handled with perfect clarity without any lapses in sound. Full ensemble numbers are, likewise, well harmonised. Performers all work together as a strong team, while also embracing their featured moments to shine, with Angelina Mustafay, in particular, showing a consistent reliability in her every energetic appearance as poor rebel Robby The Stockfish. Their collective step-up to assume responsibility for so much of the comedy of Act Two’s telling is not only refreshing, but ably handed.
While the score of “Urinetown” isn’t particularly memorable as a whole of even a sum of its parts, in experience of the show, its songs are all quite wonderful. Every one has its own style, with numbers covering multiple interweaving genres. And musical theatre fans will appreciate its nods to iconic musicals. From Act Two’s titular opener, which is very “Fiddler on the Roof” in its sensibility to the following Fosse-like “Chicago” feel of the high-octane dance number ‘Snuff That Girl’, there is a differing energy to their musical allusions. Following a pacy, almost patter song ‘Mr Cladwell’ introduction of Hope to her co-workers, Holman channels King Herod type mockery in his ‘Don’t Be the Bunny’ random tell of little bunnies at a toll booth in offer of metaphoric advice to his daughter, and there is even a Les Mis Act One finale, complete with revolutionary flag of appropriate making.
Under Benjamin Richards’ musical direction, the orchestra enlivens every number within the challengingly diverse score. Richards is energetic on keyboard, adding much vitality to the experience of numbers such the gospelesque audience-favourite cry for freedom ‘Run Freedom Run’, which is well chosen as a hallelujah curtain call revisit. And, on reeds, Monique Matthews provides the smooth clarinet sounds to add a soul not so often seen in musical scores. And Breanna Gear’s costume design vividly captures the contrasting, but each tonally-themed aesthetics of the disparate rich and poor groups as well as the characters within them, putting the pretty and perky Hope, for example, in an appropriately prim and proper pussy bow blouse, until her due-to-being-in-love transformation.
Experience of “Urinetown” can best be described as unexpected. This is acknowledged in one of its self-referential moments when Little Sally suggests that bad subject matter or a bad title even could kill a show pretty good. It might not be (as Officer Lockstock surmises) a happy musical, but it is a hilarious one. It is very clever in foreshadowing and sophisticated in its witty humour, even when in the form of vaudeville gags and low-brow laughs. The result is a very funny night out, especially in Act Two, in its dialogue, but also imagery of cartoon violence. Then there are the pantomimic in-unison ensemble reactions that lead us towards its ultimate altruistic messaging about free access for all and not just the wealthy few. Under Hayley Gervais’ insightful direction, like any good allegory, it works on many levels, all of them entertaining, meaning that whether your take-away be of its social satire, parody of the art from of musical theatre or just entertainment in or of itself, this Phoenix Ensemble show will not disappoint. The light-hearted, lesser-known work is highly creative and a must-see for musical theatre fans looking to expand their experience of the genre.