Arts theater review

“Urine” for a good show

MIT’s Musical Theatre Guild Presents Urinetown, a musical about tyranny, justice, and pee

Directed by Daniel Epelbaum ’16
Performed by The MIT Musical Theatre Guild
Lyrics and Music Written by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis
La Sala de Puerto Rico, Student Center

In the world of Urinetown, urination isn’t a right, but a privilege. It’s a place without privacy, where you simply cannot ever hope to “pee in peace.” This fall, under the direction of Daniel Epelbaum ’16, MIT’s Musical Theatre Guild brought this horrid world to musical life onstage, painting a picture of a world of political corruption, social injustice, and imperfection, a place where “it’s a privilege to pee.”

In a seemingly post-apocalyptic society suffering a drought that could compete with California’s, a conservation effort to “keep the water in the ground” bans the existence of private toilets. All “business” is done in “Public Amenities” run by the Urine Good Company (UGC), a mega-corporation headed by CEO Caldwell Cladwell (Brandon Sanchez ’18). What’s more, the UGC charges the civilians for use of their public toilets.

Meanwhile, the effort to “keep the pee off the streets” outlaws urinating in non-designated facilities (i.e. the streets or bushes). Those who violate the law are exiled to Urinetown, a supposed penal colony from which no one returns. This horrific stipulation incites a revolt led by Bobby Strong (Eric Fegan ’17) and Hope Cladwell (Natasha Batten ’19) at Public Amenity #9, a particularly poor and filthy toilet run by authoritarian Penelope Pennywise (Sarah Volz ’17). They successfully defeat the UGC authority and open up the public toilets to free usage. However, their new regime is not necessarily better than the one they overthrew — soon the water runs out, and the people are left to die in a drought-stricken world.

Through its colorful characters, Urinetown introduces a satirical mood that will make the audience jump out of their seats in laughter. But despite the lightheartedness, Urinetown does introduce a few strong themes you wouldn’t expect in the average Saturday-evening Broadway musical.

“The biggest challenge of Urinetown is taking the ridiculous story and all of the singing and dancing and making it feel real,” Eric Fegan ’17 said. “On the surface, the show is quite absurd, but the themes and conflicts are actually very relatable. Finding the sincerity in the absurdity has been both the hardest and most rewarding part of working on the show.”

Sarah Volz ’17 agreed. “I love Urinetown because it’s both a satire and a parody on a number of levels — it lampoons Broadway shows and the musical theater genre, but it also pokes fun at corruption, overconsumption, and sustainability. Urinetown is definitely a comedy, but it has dark themes, which makes it a challenge to pull off.”

Thankfully, Officer Lockstock (Mark Mockett ’19) and Little Sally (Phoebe Piercy ’20) help us understand these themes with hilariously meta asides to the audience.  For example, at one point, Little Sally asks, “Why not simply solve the drought with irrigation?” Officer Lockstock explains that musicals are supposed to only focus on one big thing, and not get bogged down in the details.

Despite the atypical storyline, preparing and rehearsing for the show was like any other MTG has done in the past. “The most difficult aspect [of production] really depends on the show, but I feel like it’s usually the choreography or the singing. Nothing was particularly super challenging for this show on its own, but it was hard putting everything together. I really enjoy vocal rehearsals… it’s really satisfying when we get to the end of a rehearsal and ace some hard harmony or rhythm section,” Producer Caroline Walsh ’17 said.

As co-producer along with Anni Zhang ’17, Walsh oversees all aspects of the show. Though this is the sixth show she has produced, “figuring out how to fit as many shows as possible… and [managing] other aspects of the show was pretty challenging,” as MTG was only able to get one weekend of shows for this semester.

The details of Urinetown were all put together expertly. Well-timed lighting added flavor to each scene, such as the the sudden bursts of pink lighting during Mr. Cladwell and Ms. Pennywise’s first meeting scene, which suggested an amorous connection between the two before their true background was revealed later in the show. The dilapidated set design (created by Brandon Sanchez ’18) — built of wood, tarp, and spray paint — added realism to the scene’s drought-stricken, impoverished feel. A tall staircase was used to draw attention to certain scenes, such as Hope Cladwell and Bobby Strong’s love-at-first-sight meeting as well as Bobby’s final plunge to Urinetown. Live musicians and brassy instrumentals added a energy and verve to the musical numbers. “It’s super rewarding, seeing all the separate parts of the show come together in the end,” Walsh said.

Additionally, MTG gave their production a unique flair by modifying a few details. In the original edition, the money-obsessed Senator Fipp is portrayed as a male character, but in MTG’s edition he is portrayed as a female character. Caroline Walsh ’17, who played the role, said, “I think having that extra dimension to her story changes how she reacts when she feels betrayed by Cladwell in the end,” when Cladwell abandons his daughter Hope.

MTG certainly has a lot of musical diversity among its members. While Walsh has been in theater since she was around five years old, Fegan has only recently gotten into acting, though having had previous musical experience with the piano. “The great thing about MTG is that it allows people to get involved with all aspects of the production, whether they are experienced veterans or just want to learn,” Fegan said.

With such a talented cast and crew, MTG is surely not going to be idle at anytime during the school year. “Over IAP, we’ll be reviving Hack Punt Tool, which is a musical about MIT that was written several years ago by some alums and performed for the first time in 2012,” Walsh said.

Urinetown ran Nov 17-20 at 8 p.m. as well as Nov. 19-20 at 2 p.m. in La Sala de Puerto Rico.