Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Urinetown
ACT Theatre / The 5th Avenue Theatre
Review by David Edward Hughes


Brandon O'Neill and Arika Matoba
Photo by Jeff Carpenter
A test of a great musical is: After nearly two decades having flown by is the script still topical? Are the tunes still tuneful? Are the lyrics still literate and laugh-provoking? If so then Urinetown is indeed one of the first great musicals of the 21st century. In Seattle, the fine co-production between ACT Theatre and The 5th Avenue Theatre is directed by the 5th's Artistic Director Bill Berry with tongue in cheek, zest and zeal, with an insanely adroit cast and powerhouse production team. Though the show's national tour played Seattle's Paramount in the early 2000s, it is a much better fit for the more Off-Broadway-size Falls Theatre at ACT.

This little show that could opened in 2001 at the New York International Fringe Festival, then Off-Broadway where it won a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical before it moved to Broadway and was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, taking home three: Best Book for Greg Kotis, Best Score for Mark Hollmann and Kotis, and Best Direction of a Musical for John Rando.

Urinetown takes place in an undisclosed city in the not too distant future, where a serious, decades-long drought has gravely impacted society through vast poverty, although callous business tycoons such as the main villain Caldwell B. Cladwell, have made a fortune through bribery and the monopolization of restrooms. All toilets have become property of Cladwell's corporation Urine Good Company. A brutal police force maintains order, sending violators of the law to a place called Urinetown. Thanks to police officer Lockstock and a valiant waif named Little Sally, who narrate the show, we learn pretty quickly what fate awaits there. I mean, could you die there? Why yes, but all in the name of satirical, rapier-wit musical comedy, inspired by the Brecht and Weill classic The Threepenny Opera and with a broadly wise-ass nod to all clichés and norms of musical theatre.

The tiny but tenacious heart of the story resides within a naïve yet valiant young man, Bobby Strong. Bobby works at a particularly seedy toilet facility managed by a bad gal with a sad backstory named Penelope Pennywise. But after his own father is flushed away to Urinetown, Bobby decides to fight for freedom, along with the equally tenderhearted ingénue Hope Cladwell. Their innate virtue and goodness lead them to the conclusion that changes must be made, and that the people have a right to use the restroom without taxation! In the process of becoming a revolutionary, Bobby makes some tough decisions (he and his poor cohorts kidnap Hope when he discovers that she is the daughter of his employer Mr. Cladwell). Hope realizes her father's company is corrupt and is held for ransom until Mr. Cladwell and his crooked cronies consent to do right by them. Does this conflict end with a happy or sad conclusion? Ultimately, kinda both—but stay to the end, it's so worth it.

Director Berry paces the show at light speed, and choreographer/assistant director Charlie Johnson has devised tight, comedic and classic Broadway-referencing choreography that makes the cast of first-class actor/singers look like Jerome Robbins protégés. ACT's own esteemed former Artistic Director Kurt Beattie rousingly returns to the stage as Caldwell B. Cladwell, and takes as much joy playing this dastardly nut case as he gives the audience in his signature solo "Be Like the Bunny." Mikko Juan as Bobby and Sarah Davis as Hope Cladwell score big vocally as they render some of the faux-romantic and inspirational songs such as "Follow Your Heart," "Run, Freedom, Run!," "Look at the Sky," and "I See a River," yet each keeps with the show's twisted sensibility.

Brandon O'Neill's Officer Lockstock leads the cast in the hilarious "Too Much Exposition" opener and this full-bodied vocalist gives what may be his best performance to date, proving a master of sly, comedic insincerity, well teamed with the gut-busting antics of Arika Matoba as Little Sally. Mari Nelson endows Miss Pennywise with a venal overcoat and a tiny underlayer of love and regret. Her strong, wide-ranging solo vocal on "It's a Privilege to Pee" is acted and sung with the kind of power, presence and musicality all musical theatre performers should aspire to. Leslie Law reminds me and all her Seattle fans of what made us fall in love with her, lining her role as Mrs. Josephine Strong with all the tenets of an Aunt Eller/Nettie Fowler/Mother Superior, then turning on a dime into one of the poor or one of Cladwell's associates, while Matthew Posner as Officer Barrel not only reminds us that Nazis are a great source of sardonic ridicule, but can also sing well and have a closet full of not so secret secrets.

Chris Ensweiler creates an original, oily, audacious comic presence as Senator Fipp, Nathaniel Tenenbaum is perfectly pompous as Mr. McQueen, and Brian Lange continues to pull from his bottomless bag of tricks as both Old Man Strong and Hot Blades Harry. Finally, there are not two more game and delightful talents than Andi Alhadeff and Sarah Russell to round out this exceptional cast.

Musical director R.J. Tancioco deserves a solid hand, with both his cast and musicians delivering the goods (and from my side orchestra seat I saw that his joy with their work is open-hearted). Scenic designer Martin Christoffel delivers a massive, winding, industrial-strength staircase, and leaves plenty of open space for the big numbers. Melanie Burgess' costumes, and the wild wigs and hairstyles that go with them, have an especially apt Tim Burton-ish quality to them, and Robert J. Aguilar's lighting designs are delightfully varied while conveying the mad-house darkness of the piece.

I have it on good authority (and the fact that performances were added pre-opening) that this run of Urinetown will sell out quickly. So, stay out of the April showers and revel in this sublime show.

Urinetown, through May 26, 2019, in ACT Theatre's Falls Theatre, 7th & Union, Seattle WA. For show-times, reservations and more, visit www.acttheatre.org.


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