Arlington — Never judge a book by its cover. That’s the easy joke, but since the “book” we’re talking about today is all about laying conventions bare, it’s apt. Whether considered an adage or a cliché, it’s often true, and never more so than in Urinetown, the Musical, currently inciting revolution at Theatre Arlington.
To answer the obvious question, yes. The show is very much about pee. Or the restriction of pee, to be specific. Set in a drought-stricken near-future dystopia, the scarcity of water has led to some drastic measures to preserve society. The primary measure focused on by the show is the fact that the sanitation system has been privatized and not only do people have to use the public toilets, it’s illegal not to. Anyone caught breaking this law is carted off to the titular Urinetown.
The problem is that a significant portion of the population has a hard time affording these “public amenities.” And when Bobby Strong’s (Tim Brawner) father, Old Man Strong (Gary E. Payne) gets taken by Officer Lockstock (Scott Nixon) to Urinetown, Bobby stokes the fires of revolution.
Another interesting element of the show is its transparency. The title is on purpose, and the story is told directly to the audience, with Lockstock and Little Sally (Dakota Ratliff) serving as a kind of narrator team. Yes, on top of being a parable, the show also pokes fun at many theater conventions along the way. This meta quality adds a rich dose of humor to the otherwise downer of a story. It’s also very smart.
Director Bill Sizemore gets greats performances from the cast. Nixon is a perfect Lockstock. He finds a good balance between being the authoritarian Gestapo-like policeman and the jovial, somewhat fatherly narrator. Lockstock is a more challenging role than people may realize, and Nixon handles it with ease. Ratliff, who essentially serves as the voice of the audience to Lockstock, is equally adept. The two have solid chemistry and imbue the show with a good energy.
Speaking of energy, it’s exploding out of Brawner. Bobby can come off as angsty, but Brawner makes his plight feel real and essential. He also shares an electric chemistry with Rebecca Paige, who plays both Bobby’s love interest, and the daughter of the show’s villain Caldwell B. Cladwell (Robert Banks), the head of the Urine Good Company, which regulates the toilets. In a role that changes a lot from start to finish, Paige makes Hope a real character, and her growth believable.
The big quibble is with Cladwell and his fellow UGC employees. Trying to catch on current popularity, Sizemore models the bad guys as Hunger Games-like aristocrats, complete with crazy clothes, makeup, and oddly shaped facial hair (costumes by Ryan Matthieu Smith). This is a misstep. Despite the fact that there is an economic element to the story, it’s not really about the class system. It’s about the drought and what desperation leads people to do. In Bobby’s case, it’s to start a revolution. In Cladwell’s case, it’s to preserve as much of humanity as possible through some pretty painful measures. Does that have an adverse effect on the poor? Absolutely. But, Cladwell is written as a businessman, not some eccentric Donald Sutherland Hunger Games villain. It changes the story and smacks of a vain attempt to make the show more relevant.
But, it doesn’t need to be more relevant. First, it’s not an old show. It debuted in 2001. And second, it’s all too real for some people right now. California is in the midst of a devastating drought and water rationing has begun. This show is incredibly prescient, and adding the Hunger Games element cheapens it.
That said, the show is pretty great overall. Tony Curtis’ set is immersive, the cast is ultra talented, and the onstage band (Rebecca Lowrey/piano, Thomas Primozic/percussion, Tom Kmiecik, reeds) is spot on.
Get past the title and see this show. The music by Mark Hollmann and book by Greg Kotis (they both wrote lyrics) are better than just about any musical of the last 20 years. The music will stick, and you’ll find yourself humming it days later. It’s underappreciated specifically because people turn their noses up at seeing a show called Urinetown. The show makes fun of this, as if Kotis and Hollmann knew that all they needed to do was get people in the door and they’d be in on the joke.
Trust us, it’s a joke you need to get in on.