There are still people who like musicals and yet probably won’t go see Urinetown: The Musical because of its title. Note to them: get over that and take the chance with Theatre Arlington’s current revival.
The musical itself is on the short list of the 21st century’s best musicals, vying for top spot with works like Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and The Drowsy Chaperone that stand out because they don’t come from a make-your-own-musical kit.
With more than a decade of hindsight — the musical opened on Broadway on (yikes!) Sept. 20, 2001 — the show is even more relevant with its central conceit of water being so scarce that it’s regulated by the one-percenters.
If all that sounds like heavy theatergoing, rest assure that the musical is ridiculously funny as it handles satire and parody in surprising, fresh ways. Its creators, composer Mark Hollmann and librettist Greg Kotis (they both contributed lyrics) were inspired by political/satirical musicals like Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock, and they still found time to lampoon the musical art form itself.
That’s a lot going on, but it works. Although Theatre Arlington’s staging features the best vocals heard there in some time, and has some terrific performances, the whole production is nearly derailed by director Bill Sizemore’s ill-advised concept. In theater, there’s a time for wacky interpretation, and with a musical that’s bursting at the seams with cleverness and cautionary messages, Sizemore’s addition of a Hunger Games layer is out of place.
Urinetown is already dystopian, as the poor, regular folk are lorded over by what many perceive as an evil corporation, Urine Good Company, run by Caldwell B. Cladwell (Robert Banks). His daughter, Hope (Rebecca Paige), falls in with a group or rebels, led by this story’s hero, Bobby Strong (Tim Brawner).
Officer Lockstock (Scott Nixon) narrates the proceedings, shadowed by 99-percenter Little Sally (Dakota Ratliff). Other characters include toilet mistress Penelope Pennywise (Caroline Rivera) and Officer Barrel (Ian Mead Moore). Several actors play multiple roles; my favorite is Stephanie Felton, hysterical on both sides of the iron gate as Little Becky Two Shoes and Mrs. Millennium.
To make such obvious references to a pop culture story about an undesirable future as in The Hunger Games (mostly done with Ryan Matthieu Smith’s costumes, which are wonderfully and whimsically designed), sadly flattens the satire.
Banks is terrific, though — especially on one of the musical’s many memorable songs, Don’t Be the Bunny — as are Paige, Rivera and the feisty Ratliff. Brawner is on the wooden side, and Nixon had a few misses with comic timing at Sunday’s matinee, but he easily got back into the rhythm. Musical director Rebecca Lowrey gets fine work from the ensemble, and although choreographer Becca Brown pares down the West Side Story/Cool references in Snuff That Girl (probably because of the smallish stage and the space taken by Tony Curtis’ set), she does some good work with other movement-heavy numbers like Run Freedom Run.
One thing that makes Urinetown so brilliant is that just when you’re ready to pick up your years-old Occupy Movement picket sign, the tables turn. Bobby doesn’t get a hero’s ending and sometimes the bad guys win. In the wake of bankers getting off scot-free after the events that launched America into the Great Recession, and then conveniently persuading half of the public to blame it on another guy, Urinetown couldn’t be more timely.
Although at some point it probably will be — which is why it will forever go down as a great musical.