Urinetown: The Musical

'Urinetown: The Musical' may wallow in a sordid premise and have an awful title, but Zach's production is always making you happy, if not downright giddy

Arts Review

Urinetown: The Musical

Zachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage, through Feb. 12

Running time: 2 hrs, 5 min

Late in Act Two, things aren't looking too sunny for the ragged rebels fighting their drought-choked city's decree that all who pee pay for the privilege. After they relieved themselves sans fee, the head of the Urine Good Company, the corporation controlling all the public amenities, called for their heads, and now huddled in their secret hideout (conveniently marked "secret hideout"), they've learned that the leader of the cause was nabbed by the fuzz and dispatched with a one-way ticket to Urinetown (the place, not the musical, a distinction made helpfully by the show's cop/narrator, Officer Lockstock). But their plight is not without hope – specifically Hope Cladwell, daughter of UGC magnate Caldwell B. Cladwell and hostage of the "free pee" resistance. Her love of martyred leader Bobby Strong might just inspire the ingenue to shake off her filial chains and lead the revolution herself. At least, at the mention of hope (the feeling, not the female), a bell will ring and a light shine down on the perky lass' beaming countenance, making everyone feel happy.

That's the way of Urinetown (the musical, not the place): Its subject matter may be gloomy (exploitation of the masses, corporate greed, political corruption); it may wallow in the sordid; it may have an awful title (a point made time and again by the show's characters), but it's always making you happy, if not downright giddy. Credit creators Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, who stuffed the show with wordplay, sight gags, satirical jabs, and melodic bits pillaged from every corner of musical theatre and mocked 'em with grand precision. Their script is breathtakingly smart – what else to call a pitch-perfect parody of Thirties political musicals, à la Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera and Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock? – and maybe its smartest quality is its straddling of the razor's edge between spoofery and story. Absurd as Urinetown's premise and characters are, they're treated with just enough seriousness and sincerity that it plays like a real musical, its fight for justice and romantic struggle tugging at our hearts even as they poke our funny bones.

In Austin, that nonstop giddiness is also due to the Zachary Scott Theatre Center production, which races along on a flood of high spirits and comic verve. Beneath huge bloated bladders hung by set designer Michael Raiford and in the alarmingly yellow light poured over the stage by lighting designer Jason Amato, director Dave Steakley puts his cast of natural-born comedians through their paces, nailing the mile-a-minute gags with split-second timing. Jamie Goodwin leads the way as musical-besotted Officer Lockstock, who can't help punctuating his asides to the house with a Fosse flourish; Goodwin's jazz hands have a mind of their own. Marc Pouhe cuts a commanding figure as Cladwell, relishing this moneybags' malevolence and selling us on his million-dollar charisma (and is he ever clad well, in stylish suits from costumer Susan Branch). As Bobby Strong, David Sattler revels in the importance of being earnest, giving Bobby so much heart that he has precious little room left for brains. Jill Blackwood's Hope is, if possible, even dimmer – until Blackwood flashes her pearly whites or breaks into a number like "I See a River," when she washes the stage in radiance. Experienced comic hands like Les McGehee (whose Officer Barrel is a genial galoot) and Meredith McCall (Penny Pennywise, soft as a rusty nail) land laughs handily, but the youthful chorus proves just as sure with the jokes – and Robin Lewis' riotous choreography (riotous in its shameless lifting of moves from West Side Story, Les Miz, Chicago … you name it). And under the musical direction of musical encyclopedia Allen Robertson, they create a robust sound, an equal mix of homegrown take and loving send-up of bygone Broadway.

The heart of the play, though, isn't in its irreverent recycling of musical bits, fun as that is. It's in the tension between what we want today and what we leave for tomorrow, the reckless plundering of resources for present gratification and the preservation of resources for the future. The musical argues that idealism won't save the day, and giving the people what they want may not help them any more than greedy capitalism will. In Kotis and Hollmann's world, no one gets off the hook; theirs is equal opportunity satire. Which may be why Urinetown is as important as it is entertaining. It shows us that Urinetown (the place, not the musical) is our town. If we dare to look.

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Urinetown:The Musical, Greg Kotis, Mark Hollmann, Dave Steakley, Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Michael Raiford, Jason Amato, Susan Branch, Robin Lewis, Jamie Goodwin, Jill Blackwood, Les McGehee, Meredith McCall, David Sattler, Marc Pouhe, Allen Robertson

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