A Real Pisser
Breaking through the fourth wall with a hearty yellow stream
There’s so much Brecht-Weill action going on these days, it would actually be more refreshing not to see something Brechtian. We just may end up referring to The Constant Wife as the riskiest production of the festival for daring to keep up the fourth wall.
Kotis-Hollmann’s Tony-award winning Urinetown: The Musical! mixes up music Weill-style and pokes fun at itself and the musical genre in general, with meta-theatrical references to too-much exposition, the big number before intermission, the hero who needs to keep his head out of the clouds and avoid ending up like his father, the love story, and the optimism for change (as Urinetown character Little Sally says, “when a little girl has been given as many lines as I have, there’s still hope for dreams!”). Little Sally and Police Officer Lockstock serve as the representational, tongue-in-cheek narrators of the show, giving each other and the audience nudges and winks of references to the genre, and even some good old-fashioned Brechtian didacticism, with humor:
Little Sally: I don’t think too many people are going to come see this musical, Officer Lockstock.
Lockstock: Why do you say that, Little Sally? Don’t you think people want to be told that their way of life is unsustainable?
Urinetown takes place “sometime after The Stink Years.” The set and light design trifecta of Keely Enright, Dave Reinwald, and Maida Libkin have, along with costumers Julie Ziff and Chaney Long, created a prison-like world full of black-and-white stripes and gray cinder blocks. There’s been a drought in the town for 20 years, and corrupt Caldwell B. Cladwell has taken over rule of the city with promises to “keep the pee off the streets and the water in the ground.” Water is so scarce that it’s become illegal to relieve oneself anywhere other than in a pay facility run by Cladwell’s UGC (“Urine Good Company”). Cladwell’s daughter Hope falls in love with Bobby Strong, an assistant at one of the facilities, and the newfound love and inspiration move Bobby to gather the people and revolt.
As Bobby, Jamie Smithson is marvelously energetic and charming — just what a musical hero should be. He plays his role with great humor, leaping into the expectations of a stereotypical leading man, stepping into the hero’s shoes with childlike gusto and impish mischief. When asked what the townspeople will fight the UGC with, Bobby proudly replies, “With blood, with guts, with brains if we have to.”
Blake Whitney as wide-eyed Hope is a perfect match for Smithson and shines in her own right, not just as the love interest to the hero. She gives Hope’s ridiculous optimism conviction rather than ham, and it serves the humor better. Whitney and Smithson both have commanding voices that are a pleasure to listen to.
Johanna Schlitt, who plays Little Sally, the token observant wise-ass kid, is an amazingly dedicated young performer to watch. She knows her function in every onstage moment and plays it perfectly, adjusting her countenance accordingly but naturally as she moves from being the center of attention to a background element. Her expressions don’t merely change to show new emotions as developments or encounters occur. It’s not “now I’m happy: smile; now I’m shocked: mouth agape!” Rather, you can actually see the train of thought on her face, carrying her from one emotion to the next. She almost has to be perfect, as our perspective of the story depends on her. She’s our Urinetown guide, along with Lockstock (and as any musical will tell you, we’re going to sympathize more with a cute kid than a dirty cop).
Johanna’s father William Schlitt as Caldwell seems born for the role, growling through his dastardly deeds, confidently bursting through his evil tunes. Lesly Lamb as Caldwell’s jaded old flame Ms. Pennywise has a roughness to her voice that suits her role well, especially as moments of loveliness symbolically peek through in her singing. Michael L. Locklair’s constant Officer Lockstock, Evan Parry’s shifty Mr. McQueen, and Robbie Thomas’ clownish Officer Barrel all make for high quality, fun entertainment.
The main problem, perhaps the only one, is the volume of the performers’ voices. Some of the actors could barely be heard when they sang. Even audience members near the front were complaining about not being able to hear some of the singing. At times, it felt like performers were shouting to be heard over the band (which played terrifically). During a couple of the big numbers, an out-belting competition seemed to be taking place, as many people assaulted the crowd singing their own parts of the song.
But Maida Libkin’s directorial touch is both beautifully rigid in its flawless musical number staging and fluid in its spontaneity with character interactions. While everything is choreographed, the action flows like melted butter (or hot urine?) over the stage. No one’s searching, no one’s finding their spot — at least not in appearance. Her direction has removed much of what critics of musicals detest: the weight of planned musical numbers, the awkwardness of people supposedly just breaking into song and dance, and the disbelief that people would all know how to do the same dance. In Libkin’s Urinetown, it’s all perfectly natural.
Urinetown: The Musical! • Piccolo Spoleto Theatre Series • (2 hours 15 minutes) • Adults $24; Seniors/Students $22 May 31, June 1, 7, 8 at 8 p.m.; June 2, 3, 9 at 7 p.m. • Village Playhouse, 730 Coleman Blvd., Mount Pleasant • 554-6060