URINETOWN: Power to the People
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: TheatreLab, The Basement, 300 E. Broad St, RVA 23219
Performances: September 12-28, 2019
Ticket Prices: $35 General Admission; $25 Seniors & Industry/RVATA; $10 Students and Teachers with ID
Info: (804) 506-3533 or TheatreLABrva.org
Last season TheatreLAB blew us away with their stellar production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Now, with their latest production, Urinetown, the Musical it seems fair to say that TheatreLAB is establishing itself as a small theater that successfully produces big musicals.
Of course, I’ve heard of Urinetown. The musical, with music and lyrics by Mark Hollmann and book and lyrics by Greg Kotis, debuted in 2001 at the New York International Fringe Festival before moving to off-Broadway and then onto Broadway. But this is the first time I’ve seen it.
Gutsy and irreverent, Urinetown, the Musical parodies musicals while commenting on corrupt corporations, big government, social oppression, problems with our legal system, ecology, economics, and more. As the narrators – Officer Lockstock (Bianca Bryan) and Little Sally (Kelsey Cordrey) – are quick to point out, Urinetown, the Musical tackles these tough subjects against a background of upbeat music and songs. At one point Bryan’s character, the tough-as-nails Officer Lockstock who is never successful at reigning in Cordrey’s character – a precocious little girl who appears to be an emancipated minor – informs the unnervingly perceptive Little Sally that the truth about Urinetown will be revealed in Act 2, with nice music and “everybody singing and things like that.” There’s also fun choreography by Nicole Morris-Anastasi – the latest in a number of local shows she’s choreographed that are worthy of note; it’s exciting watching an artist hone their craft.
Urinetown, the Musical is set in an unspecific location in an unspecified time. What we do know is that there has been a drought for twenty years, water is scarce, and people are forced to use public bathrooms run by a private company that gouges its customers and exacts horrible penalties for those who cannot or will not pay. Our hero, Bobby Strong, played by Matt Shofner, finally snaps and decides enough is enough after his father is sent to Urinetown after refusing to pay to use the seedy Public Amenity #9 where Bobby is an assistant custodian. Bobby becomes the leader of a rebellion. Along the way he meets, falls in love with, and kidnaps the beautiful Hope Cladwell (Madison Hatfield), initially unaware that she is the daughter of the Caldwell B. Cladwell (Luke Schares), the CEO of the Urine Good Company that employs him and his frugal supervisor Penelope Pennywise (Michaela Nicole). Bobby, his father, and Little Sally find out what Urinetown really is, Penelope Pennywise reveals a startling secret, and much to Little Sally’s consternation, there is no happy ending.
But, there are laughs, and plenty of them, some good singing, and some excellent ensemble work from actors, some of whom do double duty as musicians. I truly enjoyed Matt Shofner as Bobby Strong; he was quirky and funny, knowing when to go over the top and when to focus on balancing compassion with rebellion. Bianca Bryan, in the role of Officer Lockstock (whose partner’s name is Officer Barrel) continues to build upon her repertoire of strong and often sinister characters. As a character who doubles as the play’s narrator, she gets to direct her penetrating gaze and frequent smirks directly at the audience. Kelsey Cordrey, Levi Meerovich, and other characters also get up close and familiar with the audience. One character even sits on the lap of an audience member during the opening scene.
Cordrey’s portrayal of Little Sally is one of my favorite parts of the show. She’s the smart little kid who knows more than most of the adults around her and won’t take no for an answer. Michaela Nicole was another favorite, and Maggie Bavolack, Anne Michelle Forbes, and Levi Meerovich gave strong supporting performances. Meerovich and Travis West (Officer Barrel) both played piano and Bavolack alternated playing the clarinet with playing the role of Bobby’s mother. Joe Lubman, the drummer, had no other character and remained in his orange prison jumpsuit, with a half mask reminiscent of Hannibal Lector.
Matt Polson directed. It’s his first time directing at TheatreLAB, but he directed Urinetown at Maggie Walker Governor’s School. Travis West, who played piano, was musical director, with musical supervision by Jason Marks. I’ve already credited the choreography to Nicole Morris-Anastasi; Kelsey Cordrey served as dance captain. Connor Potter’s scenic design is functional and basic – some steps up to an upper platform, some panels, a place to hang and store props on either side. Ruth Hedberg’s costumes (with the assistance of Autumn Foster) are appropriately tattered and scruffy while sound and lights by Joey Luck and Michael Jarrett respectively lived up to the level of excellence expected of these two – helping bring Polson’s vision to life while remaining unobtrusively in the background.
The device of having the narrators weave in and out of character and speak directly to the audience makes the audience co-conspirators in the shenanigans and prepares us to keep laughing even when we know there’s not going to be a happy ending. Urinetown, the Musical is a perfect choice for TheatreLAB’s seventh season, “Power and Privilege.” It’s funny and quirky and unapologetically honest.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Tom Topinka