Left to right: Logan Mills, Katrina Roen, Craig Wells, Ceara Ledwith, Peter Hiebert
The University of Vermont Department of Theatre has pulled out all the stops to present a rousing production of Urinetown, the musical that scored two Tony awards in 2002 for Mark Hollman (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (book and lyrics). It playfully demeans the possibility of putting a message in a musical by setting up a corporate villain too over the top to fear and too hilarious to hate, wrapping everything in a brilliant parody of the musical art form itself.
The show takes place in a city that is suffering a decades-long water shortage. The government has outlawed private bathrooms to conserve water and has obliged corporate giant Urine Good Company by outlawing relief outdoors. UGC has the monopoly on public bathrooms: Everyone must pay to pee. Sharp class lines emerge, and the story starts at one of the most miserable public facilities, where the poor must daily scrape up the ever-rising cost of relieving their bladders.
It's a potent metaphor for corporate control, allowing for hyperbole that would be satiric but for the musical's higher artistic principle: irony. As in a typical musical, there is a love story, some social commentary, two large groups of people with opposing ideas and a chance for a happy ending. Though all these treats are doled out to the audience, they come with a price tag: We have to laugh at what we love.
A typical day for the robber baron at the helm of UGC, Caldwell B. Cladwell, involves bribing politicians, amassing more wealth and suppressing the people with the help of a police force steered by Officer Lockstock. Cladwell has to teach his fresh-from-college daughter, Hope, the ways of corporate success. "I never realized that large monopolizing companies could be such a force for good in the world!" she chirps.
Meanwhile, struggling assistant pissoir custodian Bobby Strong has just seen his father hauled away. Old Man Strong lacks the cash to pee, so police march him off to exile in Urinetown. It's a tragic fate, as we later learn. When Hope and Bobby fall in love, and the cost of peeing is hiked higher still, something's gotta give. And there is singing and dancing to prove it.
Director Gregory Ramos never misses a chance to exaggerate a convention of musical theater. Yet the result is not unfeeling sarcasm but an enthusiastic celebration of how freely an audience gives its heart to emotion laid bare through music. Ramos manages to balance homage and ridicule, and establishes the crucial structure for real theater: characters with objectives.
The show's prime comedic target is Bertolt Brecht's epic theater. Brecht is easy to mock for his large political ambitions, or his emphasis on intellectual instead of emotional reactions to art. But, as this production shows, Brecht's practice of calling attention to theatrical artifice is principally a way of making us curious. When actors break the frame and speak about the story they're in, when a sign saying "Secret Hideout" appears onstage, or when two lovers burst into a mawkish song about mawkish songs, the play is laying bare its own workings, as if daring us to be affected by them. Such self-referential moments delight, and they teach us how theater works.
Brecht wanted to go a step further and reveal the ideology beneath theatrical conventions. Urinetown turns that notion on its head by mocking dreams of political change. Once class struggle is a dance number, it's not exactly philosophy. But Brecht's techniques work regardless. Noticing the artificiality of a play helps us stand back in wonder to interpret the effect on us. As Officer Lockstock says when introducing the setting, "It's any town. Any town that would be in a musical." The overt claim of naturalism explodes the possibility of naturalism, distancing us and reminding us that we should question the familiar.
The use of a narrator in Urinetown gives every aspect of the show a modern, ironic stance. Ramos doesn't lay it on too thick, and Joel Kasnetz gives the role of Lockstock a sturdy, pleasant warmth. Kasnetz's only moment of outright excess comes when he milks the finale of a song, and actually has the effect of demonstrating the restraint he's maintained up until then.
The banter between Lockstock and squeakily cute Little Sally (a delightful Kaitie Bessette) never fails to entertain even as it deconstructs the show. When Lockstock confronts Little Sally with the harsh reality of the musical's grim subject matter, she has the bright side at the ready. "When a little girl's been given as many lines as I have, there's still hope for dreams!"
As Bobby Strong, Andrew Fusco is every inch the hero: handsome, humble and energetic. He has a special knack for distilling movement to its essence, with no wasted effort. His winning combination of comic and vocal skills is showcased in his scenes with Hope, played with great wit by Ceara Ledwith. In the pair's duet, the beauty of their harmony contrasts hilariously with the absurdity of the lyrics. But they go right on to sell the number, commendably immersed in the idiocy. Ledwith's expressive face is a highlight; later in the story, even a gag over her mouth fails to dim it.
Broadway veteran Craig Wells joins the company to play Cladwell with up-tempo glee. Wells is wonderful, and it's a credit to the student ensemble that he doesn't eclipse this talented cast but works beautifully with them.
A bilevel set by Jeff Modereger has clever signage and well-chosen projections. Its anchor is the tired tile of the public bathroom, and it's a high compliment to note that you can almost smell it.
Martin Thaler's costumes are outstanding. From Cladwell's spats to woeful Little Sally's grimy plaid pinafore, his choices and the costume crew's execution provide each character with depth. The decision to use the styles of the 1930s, invoking left-wing causes and the Depression, accentuates the impossibility of social progress, in keeping with the show's tongue-in-cheek political message.
Taryn Noelle's smart, lively choreography moves the large cast around to reveal its glee or despair, in unison or in melée. Her clever ideas include building a dance number around the file folders that Cladwell's employees carry. The folders are red, matching the boss' carnation, and when they're held in outstretched arms, fluttering or diving through the air, Noelle turns a humdrum artifact into an expression of joyous veneration of the corporate leader.
The musical ensemble, led by music director Nate Venet, brings the show's songs to life with a cabaret feel. No individual tune is especially memorable, but that's because even the melodies and arrangements are references to other musicals. The stupendous Act One finale is a jumble of musical conventions, with Les Misérables coming out on top. An insane anthem called "Run, Freedom, Run" skewers gospel by way of "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" from Guys and Dolls, while "What Is Urinetown?" has eerie melodic parallels to Fiddler on the Roof's "To Life," a song about the very opposite ideas. It's the presentation more than the tune that links "Snuff That Girl" with West Side Story's "Cool," but the finger snaps seal the deal.
You need not spend the show hunting down the references. It's better to surrender to the humor and irreverence. The musical idiom is unambiguous about pushing emotion to the highest pitch, and this cast holds nothing back, even as they demonstrate the sheer silliness of it all.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Comic Relief"
Alex Brown writes fiction (Finding Losses, 2014) and nonfiction (In Print: Text and Type, 1989) and earns a living as a consultant to magazine publishers. She studied filmmaking at NYU and has directed a dozen plays in central Vermont.