Musicals with one-word titles are a grand Broadway traditon. There’s Annie, Brigadoon, Cabaret, Dreamgirls, Grease, Hair, Kismet, Mame, Oklahoma!, Oliver!, Pippin, and Rent—to name just a dozen. Still, neither Rodgers and Hammerstein nor Jerry Herman nor Lerner and Lowe could ever in their wildest of dreams have conceived of titling a musical Urinetown.  From its one-of-kind title alone, you know from the get-go that Urinetown is not going to be your parents’ or grandparents’ musical. 

Let’s start with its opening number, a duet between police Officer Lockstock and street urchin Little Sally entitled “Too Much Exposition,” which features the following verbal exchange:

Little Sally:  I guess you don’t want to overload the audience with too much exposition, huh?
Lockstock: Everything in its time, Little Sally. You’re too young to understand it now, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.
Little Sally:  How about bad subject matter? Or a bad title even? That could kill a show pretty good.

Fortunately for Urinetown’s creators Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis, neither its title nor its subject matter (more about that later) prevented the 2001 Broadway musical from becoming a bona fide hit, running nearly a thousand performances and winning three Tonys—for Best Director, Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical (as well as scoring Tony nominations in six additional categories).

Following its 2003 National Tour, Urinetown The Musical has gone on to become a regional theater favorite, converting audiences throughout the country from doubters to fans with its unique premise, its tongue-in-cheek, irreverent attitude, its clever dialog, its catchy score, its hilariously self-aware book, and its quirky cast of characters.

Santa Monica’s venerable Morgan-Wixson Theatre now tries its hand at Urinetown, with such brilliant results that its hard to believe this is “community” theater. Forget the C-word, often a synonym for “amateur.”  This is musical theater at its finest, with direction, choreography, and performances that can stand up to the best our professional theaters have to offer.

Urinetown takes place at a time in the not so distant future when decades of drought have caused such a shortage of water that “It’s A Privilege To Pee,” i.e. private toilets have become illegal and people must pay to use the amenities.  When our hero Bobby Strong learns that his father has peed illegally and been sent to Urinetown (=the worst fate imaginable), Bobby leads a rebellion against Urine Good Company, the megafirm which owns and operates the public toilets. Then, in true Romeo and Juliet tradition, Bobby falls for Hope Cladwell, the lovely daughter of UGC CEO Caldwell B. Cladwell, and finds himself caught between his romantic heart and his revolutionary ideals.

Credit director Valerie Rachelle, returning to Los Angeles following four years in Santa Maria with PCPA Theaterfest, for making the production the most exciting and imaginative of any Urinetown I’ve seen since the National Tour.  Credit choreographer Keenon Hooks for making the show’s already famous dance tributes to Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, and Jerome Robbins more WOW!-worthy than ever. Credit an amazing cast (a mix of PCPA grads, Morgan-Wixson regulars, and talented M-W newcomers) for rising to the level of excellence demanded by Rachelle and Hooks.  Credit a top-notch design team for giving this Urinetown an entirely fresh, new look.  Put all this together and you have a production that’s been winning critical raves and audience cheers since its opening night.

Rachelle and Hooks have tweaked Urinetown again and again in ways that are truly original, beginning with an Officer Lockstock that’s part tough cop, part show queen (entirely appropriate for a man with a taste for law enforcement andBroadway pizzazz).  Then there are the employees of Urine Good Company, with their frozen Stepford Wives smiles and automaton movements—who don gold lame hats for “Mr. Cladwell,” a musical number that starts out Busby Berklee and ends up A Chorus Line. This Urinetown’s Act One finale goes Les Miz one better, bedecking its citizen soldiers in toilet paper uniforms and toilet seat shields as they storm, not the barricades, but Public Amenity #9.  Hooks’ dance concept for “Run Freedom Run” blends Godspell with Pearlie for revival meeting excitement, and a choreographic spoof of Fiddler On The Roof’s “Bottle Dance” is even more inspired than usual with rolls of toilet paper taking the place of bottles.

Performances are all-around terrific, beginning with PCPA grad David Laffey’s noteworthy L.A. debut as leading man/hero Bobby Strong blending charm, brawn, first-rate acting chops, and a strong, pure singing voice.  Keaton Talmadge brings just the right quirky touch to rich-girl-turned-revolutionary Hope Cladwell, both comedically and vocally.  I absolutely loved Justin Waggle’s delicious reinvention of Officer Lockstock, which made me wish the musical theater-loving cop had even more stage time. Andrea Paquin’s Little Sally is less child and more adult-who-prefers-to-dress-and-talk-like-a-child, but the result is equally delightful.  AnnaLisa Erickson, looking like Rosie The Riveter, acts and sings the hell out of tough cookie Penelope Pennywise. A terrific Michael Heimos milks every villainous moment out of Caldwell B. Cladwell, aided and abetted by a dastardly John David Wallis as Cladwell’s assistant Mr. McQueen and JP Sarno, hilariously lecherous as Senator Fipp. PCPA grads Hooks and Layli Kayhani bring down the house with their very own Act Two showstopper, “Snuff That Girl.”

There’s not a weak link in the big supporting ensemble, who each create his or her own unique character and, whether trained dancer or not, meet the challenge of Hooks’ choreographic demands. Raquel Cockrell, Jayson Farrar-Puls, Ian Federgreen (Tiny Tom), Ariella Fiore (Josephine Strong), Justin James, Edward Kiniry-Ostro, Tom Laskey (Old Man Strong), Kimberly Lautensack, dance captain Sarah Maher (Soupy Sue), Jeannette Scherrer (Mrs. Millenium), Brittany Sindichich, Brandon Stanford (Billy Boy Bill), Ann Villella, and Steve Weber (Robby The Stockfish) do absolute bang-up work each and every one, blending voices under the assured baton of musical director Anne Gesling. 

Ellen King’s imaginatively grungy-yet-Technicolor costumes, Andrew Layton’s ingenious set, and William Wilday’s fine lighting design make this Urinetown the most colorful I’ve seen, a whole new look for a show that’s usually done in darker hues, but one that works equally well. Bob Marino’s sound design (along with the Morgan-Wixson’s excellent acoustics) lets us hear the cast’s unmiked voices, with prerecorded musical tracks sounding almost live. Assistant director Jantre Haskins Christian, assistant choreographer De’Niko Welch, and stage manager Charles Spelvin complete the behind-the-scenes team.

One can only hope that director Rachelle’s return to Los Angeles for Urinetown The Musical will be the first of many collaborations with choreographer Hooks. In the meantime, don’t miss this stellar production, one of the best ever for the Morgan-Wixson Theatre and the Santa Monica Theatre Guild, still going strong after sixty-six years of entertaining West Side audiences.

Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica. 

–Steven Stanley
March 27, 2010
                                                             Photos: John Merritt Photography

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