Urinetown packs a satiric punch

Not a pot to piss in
Michal Daniel

Following the devastation of 9/11, New Yorkers searched for ways to recover. In the theater community, that came in the guise of a little fringe Off-Broadway show about water-use issues. That Urinetown was a picture-perfect spoof of Broadway musical conventions didn't hurt; neither did an intensely clever score that was as sharp as anything heard on the Great White Way in years. In the end, the show ran for several years, earned a bunch of Tony nods, and ushered in a whole generation of off-kilter Broadway shows, from Avenue Q to The Book of Mormon.

Twelve years on, Urinetown still packs the same satiric and musical punch as it did at the beginning of the millennium. The terrific new production at the Jungle Theater proves this, providing one of the most satisfying musical and theatrical experiences of the year. From a terrific cast to strong direction to a post-industrial set utilizing every square inch of the theater's space, Urinetown is the kind of show that reaffirms your love of live performance.

It's not material that you'd think could do this. In an unnamed city wracked by decades of drought, water rationing has reached the ultimate level: You have to pay to do your "private business." An iron-fisted corporation controls it all, charging high fees to use the amenities, while a corrupt government provides a police state where violators of the laws are sent to the long-rumored "Urinetown."

Love blossoms amid all of this, between idealist Bobby Strong and Hope Cladwell, daughter of the dastardly Caldwell B. Cladwell, who runs the controlling Urine Good Company. Will the love between our heroes be enough to overthrow the bad guys? Well, in a word, no. As narrator Officer Lockstock notes early on, this "isn't a happy musical." The show, crafted by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, takes aim not just at Broadway musical conventions but also the idea that blind idealism can overthrow any injustice. It's a message, however, wrapped in Hollmann's incredible score and the pair's clever, pun-filled lyrics.

All of this gives the company — a mix of Jungle regulars and talented Twin Cities performers — a real opportunity to showcase their musical and comedic chops. Bradley Greenwald certainly has both of those, and he is perfect as Officer Lockstock. He is matched in his narrating duties by Elisa Pluhar, who takes on the role of Little Sally, a poor wretch and observer from the dirty streets of the city.

Patrick Morgan and Tiffany Seymour are essentially asked to be wide-eyed idealist innocents as Bobby and Hope, which they accomplish with aplomb. They get to sing the closest thing the show has to a romantic theme, "Follow Your Heart." Then we have Gary Briggle, the veteran vocalist and actor making his singing debut at the Jungle, as Mr. Cladwell. He has two of the strongest numbers of Act One — the toe-tapping "Mr. Cladwell" and the epic "Don't Be the Bunny" — and makes for a commanding vocal presence whenever on stage. (He's also very funny.)

Out of nowhere in the second act, Randy Schmeling and Jodi Trip — after hanging out in the company for most of the show — unleash a West Side Story-style number, "Snuff that Girl," that is an absolute highlight. The entire company is locked in to the material from the first moment, not letting the absurdity of what is passing before them interfere with the drive to create complete characters, compelling action, and well-staged musical numbers.

Director John Command is making his second pass with the show — he directed it at Bloomington Civic in 2007 — and his control of the material is first-rate, especially considering that the 23-member cast often fills up much of the space. The show is aided by Bain Boehlke's terrific industrial wasteland set, which sets the mood from the very moment the audience gets in the theater.

In many ways, bringing Urinetown to the Jungle is bringing the show home. It started in small theaters and maintains that small-scale heart. In the intimate confines of this theater (with, I will say, ample water supply and facilities), Urinetown is at its best.

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