Henry Miller Theater, NYC - September 2001
Review by John Kenrick
Don't let the title scare you off Urinetown is the wackiest musical satire to hit Broadway in decades. If you love musical theater and have an off-beat sense of humor, this show will make you laugh until you . . . er, laugh your head off. You know you are in for something different when the conductor arrives for the overture with a police escort.
The premise is as original as it is unpleasant in a city suffering from unending drought, private bathrooms are outlawed. Everyone must pay crippling fees to use public latrines run by a monopolistic corporation. Those who cannot pay get dragged off to "Urinetown," a mysterious place from which they never return. Finally, one latrine manager leads the people in rebellion. The catch is that the ing'nue he loves is (gasp!) the daughter of the corporation's greedy president.
Comedy writers Mark Holliman and Greg Kotis send up more theatrical conventions than half a dozen editions of Forbidden Broadway. Their book and score often sound like something a group of musical theater masters students might whip up as a spoof of Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and Marc Blitzstein. And therein lies the catch. If you know who those men were, you will enjoy the gags if not, you'll probably be clueless. John Carrafa's deceptively simple musical staging takes aim at everything from West Side Story to Hello Dolly to Les Miz. Boy-meets-girl romance, snarling evil, meaningful asides, foreshadowing, exposition, special effects all get a thorough kidding in a relentless flow of puns, sight gags and comic mayhem.
Amid all the guffaws, the creators hold forth a surprisingly heavy message -- namely, that our self-indulgent consumer crazed way of life is ultimately insupportable. But they don't take even this idea too seriously, so I doubt anyone else will.
At times the material is so arch that your eyebrow may fly right off your forehead. At times you may find it all too much. (And in the wake of what happened at the World Trade Center, you may even find a number aimed at corrupt cops to be, at the very least, ill-timed.) In fact, the spoofing is so relentless that they were losing me about halfway through the first act. And then the incomparable John Cullum, as evil magnate Caldwell B. Cladwell, launched into "Don't Be the Bunny." This masterful actor turned this wry anthem to mercilessness into a showstopper, one of many fine moments in one of the most delicious, over-the-top roles in his long career.
In fact, the material gets tremendous help from every member of the cast, one of the finest comic ensembles Broadway has ever seen. Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson are perfect as the young lovers torn apart by political upheaval, and the vocally dazzling Nancy Opel chews the scenery and steals many a scene as a heartless latrine manager with a secret. As the crooked cop narrating the proceedings, Jeff McCarthy gives a deft comic performance that saves this unique show from more than a few derailments. Special praise also goes to Spencer Kayden as the chatty Little Sally, the delightful Rick Crom as the witless Tiny Tom, and Broadway veteran Ken Jennings in several roles. The cast handles some of the most difficult choral passages I've heard in several seasons with apparent ease.
My one complaint I for one am thoroughly tired of producers who think they have to deface a theater in order to get audiences in the mood for a show. Rent started this, the recent revival of Follies continued it, and Urinetown has taken things to a new level of dishevelment. I know the old Henry Miller Theater is a bit scruffy these days, but either give it coat of paint or let it be turning the entrance into an ugly plywood maze is an offensive waste. And the filthy condition of the men's room did not strike me as funny it just struck me as filthy.
But all that is beside the point. Those of us who love musicals will (you should pardon the expression) lap Urinetown up. Are there enough people out there to make this a commercial success on Broadway? I doubt it, but don't go by me the last time I said a show couldn't attract a mainstream audience was Rent. And this show is infinitely more enjoyable!