By Connie Shakalis
The next time you have to really, really go to the bathroom, thank your lucky stars you don’t live in Urinetown. And thank those stars that we have the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.
Even if musical comedy satire were not one of my favorite genres, I would still have loved Indiana University Theatre’s “Urinetown.” Non-professional theater is almost always uneven, with a range of abilities, but this production has nary a weak link.
The playwright, Greg Kotis, conceived the idea for the plot one day as he searched for a bathroom in Europe, finding only pay toilets. The story of “Urinetown” is of a town that has suffered a lengthy drought, and now private toilets are banned. Everyone must pay a fee to use public toilets. “You can’t just go in the bushes,” warns Little Sally, a street urchin and the narrator of the show.
Kotis also wrote the lyrics, along with composer Mark Hollmann, and the play has won multiple Tony Awards, among others.
Where there’s a need, there’s typically an opportunist waiting to fill it. The Urine Good Company corporation doesn’t piddle around when it comes to capitalizing on the people’s need to regularly relieve themselves. “I’m here to tell you, you IS gonna pay,” says the urinal’s warden, “and I think I’ll charge you twice.”
The company’s president, Caldwell B. Cladwell (clad well, and he is), is a white-collar crook with expensive suits and shiny shoes who relishes scalping the public, even those who are desperate, pregnant and poor. They must hold in their urine or risk being arrested and sent to the dreaded Urinetown.
“I look the other way as we run the company the way we see fit,” he gloats. Actually, “there is no Urinetown; we just kill people,” police officer Lockstock confides.
Themes include capitalism, corporate irresponsibility, populism and how we use common property. Kotis drew inspiration from the works of German playwright, director and poet Bertolt Brecht and from German composer Kurt Weill.
“Dreams are meant to be crushed,” explains Officer Barrel. IU freshman and audience member Denis Joseph is majoring in economic consulting, and said he found it interesting how the play pits capitalism against socialism. “I had never thought of business as the villain, “ he said, then digressing, added, “That high note (of the revolution leader, Bobby Strong) was divine!”
But there’s a snag. Enter Mr. Cladwell’s innocent and optimistic daughter, having just graduated from “the most expensive college in the world.” She is everything her dastardly dad is not and, of course, falls for the leader of the revolution that has formed to oust Cladwell and his heinous business.
Unfortunately, Janie Johnson, as daughter Hope Cladwell, has all but ruined the role of Hope for me. She is so suited to this role — and it to her — that I now can’t imagine anyone else ever performing it. Hope is often played with a “The Simpsons” Lisa Simpson voice, which at first funny can quickly turn to cloying. But Johnson is near perfection as the seemingly cherished child who learns, by living, that things are seldom what they seem. We witness her character’s development as she must chose between loyalty to her father and a growing awareness of his insults to society. Extraordinarily watchable, Johnson is a true actor and singer, whom I believed, and enjoyed, every second she was on stage.
Also extraordinary, in a very different style, is Michelle Zink as Penelope Pennywise, the hardened overseer of the town’s grimiest urinal. What Johnson has in sweetness, Zink has in outrageous meanness. She scared me. She’s good. “The people are peein’ for free. I tried to stop them,” she sneers. Her voice is one of the cast’s best; she belts gloriously but also has a lovely lead voice, and her duet with Mr. Cladwell (there’s a secret here, which I won’t divulge) is a treat. “Sorry, I’m not sorry,” they croon.
Jimmy Hogan as revolution leader Bobby Strong (be strong) is another centerpiece. His everyman charm and his powerful singing voice enthralled the audience. One benefit of having the audience in two sections facing each other is the opportunity to observe fellow theater-goers. They liked Hogan.
Rebecca Dwoskin as Little Sally gave a moving performance as an impassioned and sensitive revolutionary. Dom Pagliaro is a forceful Caldwell B. Cladwell and had us appropriately fearing and disapproving of him.
The officious Officer Lockstock, played by Connor Bernard, has many of the play’s funniest moments. “Cop Song,” with him, Officer Barrel (lockstock and barrel), and the other officers is one of the show’s best. He and Adam Hass-Hill as Barrel are side-splitting together.
Senator Fipp, played by Jake McCutcheon, is deliciously greedy and cowardly. Mr. McQueen, played by Sam Sanderson, is supple (body as well as facial expressions) as a sycophant trying to please Mr. Cladwell. Broderick Balsley as Tiny Tom is delightedly nimble and neurotic. You would never guess he had recently, in real life, sprained his foot. Mary Beth Black, as Ma Strong, was convincing as Bobby’s angry and tough mother. I heard her beautiful voice in several of the ensemble numbers.
This entire cast is first rate; yes, dare I say Number One.
Satires, by their natures, are funny, and “Urinetown” kept me laughing at its clever lines and talented performers. “I made flushing mean ‘flush’ at the bank,” Mr. Cladwell proclaims. The song “Don’t Be the Bunny,” had me trying to stifle my guffaws as Mr. Cladwell discusses what happens to the world’s innocents. “Hello, Bunny Boo — rabbit stew!” he sings.
Director and choreographer Kenneth L. Roberson chose to stage the play using two opposing sides for the audience, with a staircase at one end, for much of the play’s action. Stairs on stage can be distracting, as the audience worries about actors stumbling to their demise. But these stairs work, as the actors run, leap, crawl and sing on them.
Musical direction is by Broadway’s Terry LaBolt, and it’s obvious why Broadway selected him. Every number captivates. Also, I enjoyed watching him and his talented band, on the first balcony.
The Wells-Metz uses a “black box” theater, a trend made popular in the 1960s and 1970s, where the stage is basically a plain black-walled area. Purists like it, because technical effects need to be minimal, and acting talent can shine through. Lighting and stage direction can be a challenge, though, because actors facing one direction are invisible to the other side. And lights that illuminate a face on one side cast a shadow on the other. But Roberson and lighting designer Tony Stoeri have achieved a striking result. Linda Pisano designed the effective costumes, which lent an eerie, drab feel to the town’s horrid predicament. Scenic design and sound design were by Ryan P. Miller and Andrew Hopson.
Near the finale, Little Sally asks, “Can’t we do a happy musical next time?” Never mind; they have. This is one happy, funny, poignant musical.
If you go
WHO: Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance
WHAT: “Urinetown” by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23, 26-30; 2 p.m. Sept. 30
WHERE: Wells-Metz Theater, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington
TICKETS: $10-$20. Call 812-855-1103 or visit theatre.indiana.edu.
Theater-goers can bring dry goods to donate to Hoosier Hills Food Bank. Barrels are in the lobby now through the run of the show.