Monday, September 26, 2005

It's a Privilege to Pee

Here is my Metro Herald review of Urinetown, now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. People have been asking about it, so I should have posted it weeks ago.

Please note that Signature has extended the run of Urinetown through October 16 and has added two Saturday matinee performances. Check the Signature web site for details.

Urinetown: Just Go
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

(ARLINGTON) — Urinetown makes a mockery of the American musical theatre – and does a damn fine job of it.

Now playing at Signature Theatre in Arlington, the winner of three Tony® awards (out of nine nominations) took New York by storm four years ago and it is about to sweep the country, as regional theatres across the United States begin to mount local productions.

What is Urinetown? That all depends on what your definition of “is” is.

Too deep to be parody, Urinetown is too original to be pastiche. Its targets are too diffuse to call it satire, and if it’s sarcastic – well, the play winks at its audience as if to say, “don’t take us too seriously. But watch out for what’s coming around the corner!” You could say Urinetown is sardonic, but despite its dark, pseudo-Brechtian exterior, it’s too lighthearted for that. Urinetown is what results from producing an essentially unproducible show.

Urinetown takes the cliches of musical theatre, twists them around, knocks them on the head, strips them of their costumes, and leaves them moaning in the gutter – barely breathing but enough for us to know they’ll live to play another day.

Urinetown is that rare animal that makes fun of the theatre without making any explicit reference to show biz. Post-modern? It’s one step removed from that. Call it post-post-modern.

For the fan of Broadway musicals, however, the subtle references to previous works – some hugely popular, some cult favorites – are too numerous to count. The references come in every form – musical, visual, dialogue, plot devices – and I can imagine a sort of parlor game developing out of “Name That Show (based on hidden clues in Urinetown).” From Fiddler on the Roof to Les Miserables, from The Threepenny Opera to Ragtime, from Anything Goes to Sweeney Todd, there is hardly any significant musical play or musical comedy of the past 75 years that is not a target of Urinetown.

The plot of Urinetown, in a nutshell, is this: In some vague time in the distant future (or is it the recent past?), a drought forces the government to ban private toilets. People who need to urinate must do so at public facilities owned by a private monopoly, and must pay to do it. (Hence the song, “It’s a Privilege to Pee.”) Eventually, the people rebel against this oppressive regime and everyone lives happily ever after – or do they?

While the subject matter of Urinetown may seem off-color and off-putting – and purposefully so, according to librettist/lyricist Greg Kotis and composer/lyricist Mark Hollman -- the play really deserves nothing more than a PG-13 rating, if that. There is no lewdness or harsh language in Urinetown, and despite the suggestion of violence, its subject matter is suitable for older children and young teenagers, though its sophistication (in a musical and literary sense) means it will be most appreciated by an older audience with many years’ experience of theatregoing.

At times Urinetown seems to take its cues from the world of Saturday morning cartoons (the kind of cartoons we watched in the 1960s, or on Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” today). Whether they know it or not, Hollman and Kotis learned more than a few things from the likes of Rocky & Bullwinkle (in fact, they have learned much more than did the producers of the live-action Rocky and Bullwinkle movie of a few years ago, but that’s fodder for another essay entirely). For example, the cartoonish device of having a highly visible sign that says “Secret Hideout” at the entrance to a, well, secret hideout is one used by some high school friends and I in a movie we made for an English class project back in 1976 – but it is no less funny for being well-worn.

As we have come to expect from Signature, director Joe Calarco has assembled a stellar cast, both from among the regular members of Signature Theatre’s repertory company – Will Gartshore, Donna Migliaccio, Evan Casey, and others – and from newcomers to Signature, such as Anthony Aloise and Stephen F. Schmidt.

The actors get to play characters with such delicious names as Caldwell B. Cladwell (the role for which Broadway veteran John Cullum earned a Tony® nomination, here played by Christopher Bloch), an obvious take-off of Marc Blitzstein’s Mr. Mister in The Cradle Will Rock, and the policemen, narrator Officer Lockstock and his sidekick, Officer Barrel.

Set designer James Kronzer makes good use of Signature’s raw space inside an old auto-body shop. Stripped to its bare walls, the Signature stage is gloomy, industrial, and goth-like. The lighting design of Chris Lee adds to the dreary equation.

Of course, the creative costumes designed by Anne Kennedy really make the show. They suggest the Depression era without being too specific, so we can still imagine that Urinetown is anytime, anyplace.

Urinetown’s run at Signature Theatre has been extended through October 16. Tickets may be hard to come by. If you miss this production – and I hope you don’t – Live Arts in Charlottesville will be mounting Urinetown in the summer of 2006, replacing the venerable Live Arts Summer Theatre Festival. Go now or go then, just go.

Performances of Urinetown are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. at Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington, Virginia. Tickets are priced from $31 to $55 and are available by calling at 800-955-5566 or 703-218-6500. Tickets may also be purchased online at

The Urinetown original cast recording, libretto (with quite interesting introductory material by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman), and vocal score are all available through

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