Urine good hands?
MTG’s Urinetown is darkly entertaining
April 27-29, May 3-5
Kresge Little Theatre
Corporate profits soar. A corrupt politician is bribed into raising fees for a necessary service, at the expense of the people. The people’s protest is brutally suppressed by the police.
Oh, did I mention that this entire hubbub is over pay toilets?
Urinetown, Musical Theater Guild’s Spring 2012 show, is a satirical comedy about resource management, corporate greed, and peeing. Because of a 20-year drought, the Urine Good Company, led by evil CEO Caldwell B. Cladwell, has a monopoly over all the pay toilets in the city, charging usurious fees to conserve water. These fees hit the poor the hardest, who must scrape every penny just to take care of their basic bodily functions. Those who can’t afford to pay and must relieve themselves outside get dragged to Urinetown, the mythical hell from which no person has ever returned.
Our hero, Bobby Strong, works for the strict Penelope Pennywise at Public Amenity #9, the filthy urinal relegated to the huddled masses, until the deportation of his father to Urinetown and the encouragement of Hope Cladwell to “listen to his heart” persuade him to lead a rebellion for the freedom to pee.
The cast features Trevor J. Mulchay ’15, who played Billy Rogers in Hack Punt Tool, as Bobby Strong. Once again the heroic protagonist, he delivers a strong performance, wielding his plunger as a call to arms. As Hope Cladwell, the daughter of Caldwell B. Cladwell (Matt Behlmann G), Krista Sergi’s bubbly acting and rich voice reinforce her role as both a daddy’s girl and the ever-optimistic enabler of the rebellion. Karen Hart ’11’s powerful voice as Penelope Pennywise can be a bit overwhelming, but her acting is spot-on. Other notable characters include Officer Lockstock (Carlos Cardenas-Iniguez ’09) and Little Sally (Anna Y. Ho ’14), the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern duo that serve as narrators.
Urinetown’s set design is less elaborate than previous MTG shows, but it gets the job done. The yellow trees on the side of the set could be withered from the lack of water, or covered in spring buds. The complex, four-part harmony of “Why did I Listen to that Man?” is textured and interwoven with rapid-fire lyrics. I particularly enjoyed the Thriller references in the “We’re Not Sorry” dance scene when the body count steadily rises throughout the song.
One of the more unusual aspects of the musical is its self-aware narrators, Officer Lockstock and Little Sally. Their commentary spoils the mystery of the famed Urinetown for the audience, which adds dramatic irony when characters are threatened with the fate of being banished there. However, their meta-commentary is compartmentalized and separate from the reality of the rest of the characters, preventing their omniscience from becoming tiresome.
The show goes deeper than most musicals. Water shortages and the need for conservation may become a regular part of our own future, as climate change intensifies drought and flood. The contrast between corporate opulence and poor protestors is reminiscent of the recent Occupy movements, which is referenced in the protest signs on-stage.
Yet neither of the options the play provides, privation and profiteering or freedom and ultimate destruction, are appealing. Tapping into the fears of our founding fathers, who instituted a system of government that was intentionally removed from direct democracy, the musical equates popular rule with shortsightedness, and bureaucracy with preservation of the future. In the end, the purpose of the arts is to bring issues to mind, and not to propose solutions. Urinetown’s satirical style allows it to comment on the cost and consequences of freedom without coming off as moralistic.
MTG’s Spring 2012 production of Urinetown is a polished production, combining lowbrow and highbrow commentary. Just remember that, despite the cheerful music, it is not a happy musical.