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Drink It Up 

Audiences adore it, but is Urinetown as fresh as the hype suggests?

Wednesday, Jul 16 2003
Everyone seems to agree that Urinetown has an irreverent, off-color edginess and a fondness for offending the audience almost unknown on Broadway these days. Critics have been using words like "fresh" and "original." Urinetown surprised the American musical establishment in 2001 by rising from the New York Fringe Festival to a long, Tony-winning run on Broadway, where producers are notoriously allergic to risky shows. But I think the shock and attendant hype say more about the cultural state of Manhattan -- with its islandwide gentrification, its Disneyfied Times Square -- than about the merits of Urinetown. There is, you have to admit, something plain wrong with Broadway when its freshest export is about wee-wee.

Urinetown takes place in the vague future, after a drought has caused a water shortage in a "Gotham-like" big city. To keep down water consumption, no one is allowed to own toilets. Citizens wishing to pee have to pay at one of the many "public" facilities owned by a massive corporation called Urine Good Company. Pissing in the bushes is a major crime. The cops are testosterone-pumped Nazis; the gulf between rich and poor is a nightmare. In spite of the yellowish tinge on the walls and the ragged costumes of the poor, however, "Urinetown" is not the city's name: Rather, it's a mythic, mysterious, much-despised ghetto -- or something -- where the piss-offenders go. Not even the most hardened underground criminal can tell you what Urinetown is like, because no one ever returns.

The idea is terrific. Writers Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann make a serious point without taking themselves too seriously, and pee is just gross enough as a topic to sustain a series of pungent jokes for 2 1/2 hours without driving people away. (A show called Craptown would never work.) Still, something about the whole endeavor feels scrubbed for Broadway. From all the hype out of New York I expected to be offended, to laugh out loud and squirm in my seat, but the piss jokes never go beyond what a normal suburban family is forced to deal with every day. And the Brechtian political fantasy has no symbolism or depth -- it's just a funny and faintly rude idea draped over a conventional musical.

What the show does nail is a certain tone, somewhere between silliness and sarcasm. Caldwell B. Cladwell, head of Urine Good Company, is a tall blowhard in a pinstripe suit who serves as the spitting image of an evil robber baron, as well as a satire of that image. Ron Holgate plays him with deep-voiced relish, and rises to brilliance in a song of advice to Cladwell's daughter Hope. "Don't be the bunny," he sings, fingers perched at the side of his head, to imitate ears, "don't be the stew/ Don't be the dinner, you've got better things to do." And the innocent Hope, played wonderfully by Christiane Noll, speaks all her lines in a quavering, nervous voice that suggests both squeaky good-girlishness and repressed lust. "Gosh, Daddy," she says, "I never realized large, monopolizing corporations could be such a force for good in the world."

The lust in her voice is for Bobby Strong (Charlie Pollock), leader of a street rebellion against Urine Good Company's control of the toilets. Pollock is a capable actor but not a vivid one; he doesn't make Bobby a charismatic hero. Bobby's personality is easily upstaged by Cladwell's and by those of the narrators, Officer Lockstock and his ragamuffin friend, Little Sally. Lockstock and Sally, in fact, are in danger of stealing the show. Tom Hewitt plays Lockstock with a squinting, tough-but-vacant gaze into the far distance, and Meghan Strange does Sally in a tart, high voice. Like a vaudeville comedian and his marionette, they deconstruct the more obvious Broadway elements of the play. "She loves him, doesn't she, Officer Lockstock?" Sally asks after a duet between Bobby and Hope. "Of course she does, Little Sally," says Officer Lockstock, fighting tears (because he loves Hope). "He's the hero of the show; she has to love him."

This is all very clever. But fresh? Deconstructionism has been around for a long time. Just because it struck Broadway audiences as a delightful novelty in 2001 doesn't mean Urinetown is somehow cutting-edge. The songs, too, have a disappointing ordinariness about them, particularly the love duets. "Follow Your Heart" by Hope and Bobby, "Tell Her I Love Her" by Sally and Bobby, and especially "Look at the Sky," which is not a duet but stinks anyway, all indulge in sentimental cymbal washes and soaring, meandering, Broadway tunelessness. Is it satire? Maybe, but here's the point: It's hard to tell. The aggressive, swing-based songs are much better, from "Snuff That Girl" to "We're Not Sorry," but even these borrow from Kurt Weill without going anyplace new.

Don't get me wrong. John Rando has directed a funny, brisk show with fine choreography by John Carrafa, and ACT has managed a nice coup by bringing it to the Geary for a tuneup before the cast sets out on a national tour. For my money, though, ACT's Shockheaded Peter (which visited from London in 2000) had a lot more quirky charm, and Butt Pirates of the Caribbean (a Fringe Fest discovery from L.A. five years ago) still sets the record for outrageousness. In a better world, we'd get Urinetown-caliber work from New York all the time. Broadway would have moved far beyond Brecht and Weill -- who both died in the '50s! -- and political comment dressed up in pee jokes and jazz wouldn't be such a surprise.


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