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Urinetown | Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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But it might not gel were it not for the great score. High-energy song-and-dance numbers like "Privilege to Pee" (featuring the delightful Zoe Vonder Haar as Penelope Pennywise) and "Mr. Cladwell" have all the hustle-and-stomp of, say, South Pacific's "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" or Guys and Dolls' "Luck Be a Lady."

 

 

 

Off-Ramp Series | Grandel Theatre
Music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann; book and lyrics by Greg Kotis | Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Through Dec. 10

Urinetown is the proverbial musical for people who don't like musicals. The pounding score and the relentless, self-mocking humor make for an irresistible evening of theater, even for the reluctant. With its sight gags, slapstick, and campy dialogue, it's all kinds of funny. If only the work's message, a call-to-arms against corporate greed, hadn't dissipated during the second act as if never there to begin with, a solid musical could have been a consistently brilliant one.

Urinetown, which snagged a bunch of Tonys in 2002, imagines a nightmarish future in which water is scarce, and toilets are all public. You have to pay to pee. The draconian Urine Good Company (ha!), in collusion with the cops and the state, controls this arrangement, much to the delight of UGC president Caldwell B. Cladwell. The stentorian Joneal Joplin plays the stuffy suit with evident zest, hamming it up, as do all the actors in this cartoon of a musical. In particular, Steve Isom as Officer Lockstock and Sandie Rosa as Little Sally share a series of memorable scenes in which he explains the conventions of musical theater to her—and to us—with a wink and a nod. Audiences can't get enough of their meta-silliness.

Ben Nordstrom as Bobby Strong leads the people in a revolt against this bladder-busting tyranny, falling for Cladwells's light-as-lithium daughter Hope (Jayne Paterson) along the way. Will the noble mob defeat the corporate baddies?

We're having too much fun to care. When Bobby hears the voice of his dead father encouraging him to do the right thing, a burst of mist from an aerosol can connotes a flashback. It's self-consciously low-budget and stilted—a typical moment in this smart comedy.

But it might not gel were it not for the great score. High-energy song-and-dance numbers like "Privilege to Pee" (featuring the delightful Zoe Vonder Haar as Penelope Pennywise) and "Mr. Cladwell" have all the hustle-and-stomp of, say, South Pacific's "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame" or Guys and Dolls' "Luck Be a Lady"—good stuff. A versatile five-piece band puts out a big sound, too, pumping out gospel, klezmer, and any number of styles at high volume. In the intimate Grandel Theatre, it sounds even better.

Amid all this swinging and laughter, it's hard to see why Urinetown creators Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis decided to flirt with the serious trope of the rich screwing the poor. In addition to all that great music and comedy, the first act offers a clear allegory for our time, or any time, really. Tyrants oppress, and rebels rise up to organize a resistance and fight them. Greed is the currency of the day, until a refreshing burst of revolution brings back a little equality. It's easily more funny than it is rousing, but still, this is the stuff of which Urinetown is made. And yet in the second act, it's just gag after gag. The comedy swallows up the plot and eats it whole. I found myself wishing they had gone the way of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a hilarious musical comedy mercifully free of meaning. In the alternative, of course, they could have beefed up Act II with a bit more Brecht and interest in the story. In either case, they shouldn't have let the ending fizzle away like the last drops of piss sputtering from a panting racehorse. As a screwball musical that retains a spunky, Off-Broadway vibe, Urinetown is just too good for that. | Byron Kerman

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