Urinetown, the 2001 three-time Tony award winning musical by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, knows it’s a tough sell.
It’s an all-singing, all-dancing world where a terrible drought has outlawed private toilets and a public health act forbids public urination. A private company operates the town’s only public amenities, charging exorbitant rates for the privilege to do one’s business. If the people can’t pay to pee, they’re killed by the police, who call it “being sent to Urinetown”. Citizens don’t know their fate if they fail to comply, though we find it out in the first scene.
Who’d want to see a musical about all of this, you might ask. Don’t worry: in that first scene, Little Sally (Natasha Vickery) takes these questions to the show’s narrator, Officer Lockstock (Karen Vickery). Wouldn’t the show’s premise and subject matter, or its bad title, “kill a show pretty good”? Lockstock dodges the question, but the message is clear: this musical is in on the joke.
Part social and political commentary, Urinetown vaguely gestures at Brechtian theatre techniques to amplify its exploration of corruption, corporate greed, revolution, and political paternalism (it borrows liberally from the shape, structure and sound of Brecht and Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and Orson Welles’ passion project, the neo-Brechtian play-with-songs The Cradle Will Rock). Lockstock and Little Sally frequently address the audience and the cast deliberately play the action so broadly that the characters don’t feel real – we’re not supposed to feel for them. We’re supposed to remain outside the story.
But don’t expect meaningful political critique, sharp socio-political satire, or even any depth to the techniques they borrow from agitprop and epic theatre. Urinetown’s book (Kotis) and lyrics (Hollmann) frequently undermine its own message because it is distracted by the show’s other purpose: commenting on, and parodying, musical theatre.
Urinetown’s heart really lies in riffing on classic musical numbers and tropes, and in this production by Heart Strings Theatre Co, which premiered in Canberra and is now playing at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre, director Ylaria Rogers and her team play gleeful homage to the musical canon.
Each number nods to a different show or recognisable sound, and Rogers harnesses them with a wink and nudge. The beginning of the revolution, of course, sounds like Les Misérables. Talk of rabble-rousing violence erupts into a song built on the DNA of West Side Story (and Cameron Mitchell’s choreography is at its most delightfully referential here).
There’s also a gospel number, a classical love duet, and more musical references than will fit into this review. There’s even a confrontation in the act one finale in which the “good guys” evade capture because, as Lockstock points out, the cops are choreographed running too slowly to reach them.
In short, this is a musical that never lets us forget we’re watching a musical, which is both to the show’s benefit and also its detriment: its jokes aren’t always funny, and occasionally a reaction is performed so broadly it escapes Rogers’ own strong comedic directorial framework – and there’s no emotional investment in the characters to soften the clunkers when they thud. Plus, its politics are frustratingly blithe given its clear attempts to follow in the footsteps of more rigorous work.
But when this production embraces being a musical itself, the band taking up their instruments and the cast lifting their voices in song, there’s a real hint of magic.
Urinetown’s score is more interesting as a collection of references than as songs in their own right, but under the musical direction of Matthew Reid (following Leisa Keen’s work on the Canberra season) each song seems to barrel out across the stage and wash over the cast, picking them up and holding them aloft. The sound design, under the technical supervision of Derek Walker, provides a startling clarity and brightness to each number, elevating them into something surprisingly pure.
The cast are in excellent form, and Rogers steers them fearlessly through the world of the show. Joel Horwood, as the face of the revolution Bobby Strong, uses their lovely vocal tone and commitment to the bit in equal measure to carry the plot. They are well-matched by Petronella Van Tienen as ingenue Hope, Bobby’s love interest and the daughter of Mr Cladwell (Max Gambale), the man responsible for those outrageous amenity fees.
Vickery and Vickery (a fun mother-daughter double act), as well as the rest of the ensemble (Deanna Farnell, Barbra Toparis, Joe Dinn, Benoit Vari, Artemis Alfonzetti, Tom Kelly and Dani Caruso) are just as invested in creating beautiful sounds and broad comedy.
It’s a relief that the cast and company are all-in on the big swings and jokes, both when they work and when they don’t, and there’s a sense of real community onstage. The show itself might be more bit than brain, and the songs might be powered by charm and chops more than lyrical brilliance, but the company and its creative team are exciting. What would they do with better material? We’d be lucky to find out.
Urinetown: The Musical is on at Hayes Theatre, Sydney until 5 February