Thursday 6 November 2014

A musical you just might pee your pants over

Script history overview : The in-your-face title of the script Urinetown points to a place originally located somewhere between 1984 and Brave New World. With a story put to music and dance to boot. 

The premise is quick-&-dirty : a water shortage from an extensive drought results in a government fiat that prohibits private toilets. They are replaced by mandatory pay-toilets throughout the unnamed city. Purpose is to conserve water for drinking, irrigation, life-support stuff. 

Protests mount against "Urine Good Company" (ha-ha), the biffy-mega-corp that for years has controlled the city's sewage flow. Lots of song-&-dance later, the wells dry up anyway. Just as the wells are doing today throughout the San Joaquin Valley in California and in Australia. The 2001 original production opened just a week after 9/11. Given America's shaken confidence in itself, that production stood probably more for its social contract messages than for its madcap silliness. The latter for obvious reasons was not much in vogue that September.

The current show is a remount of Firehall's 2006 Jessie Award winner for Donna Spencer in Outstanding Direction, also winning Outstanding Production. In 2014, Urinetown is totally boffo, slapschtick laugh-a-minute irreverance without one iota of serious environmental advocacy, much as its company might like to think otherwise. But more on that to come.

With music / lyrics by Mark Hollman and book / lyrics by Greg Kotis, Urinetown was nominated for 10 Tony Awards in 2002 and took home three statuettes : best musical book; musical score; direction of a musical. Given the satire about democracy's oppressive demagogues, oligarchs and bureaucrats -- plus the pee-&-poo factor -- little wonder the show has become a favourite on college campuses. But U. ain't just for college kids. Not by a long shot. Jaded wizen'd pensioners will delight in it perhaps even more. 

Why, you might well ask, this subject with its pungent title as material for a stage musical ? Seems Hollman and Kotis had done comic improv sketches together at storefront stages back in the day in Chicago, renowned home of Second City : "We were always writing stuff about a world that was a little cockeyed, that something was a little wrong," Hollman revealed in a 2013 interview with K. S. Driscoll. In the next breath Kotis added a bit ruefully : "Theatres continue to fight for the audience, and we're selling a specific kind of goofball, gonzo do you make a musical 'relevant'?"

In light of the power and prominence of big ticket musicals from the 60's and 70's, one way to make a show 'relevant' is to indulge in self-referential mockery. E.g. these days who doesn't like to take random shots at Broadway middle-brow musicals such as the stuff of uberproducer Andrew Lloyd Webber, for example? Maybe not quite as madcap as Briton Monty Python's Eric Idle achieved in Spamalot (BLR 140515), Urinetown nevertheless reflects a "lunatic dash through the [angst-ridden] American experience at the turn of the millenium", critic Scott Miller noted in 2007.

By way of response and reprieve, satiric live theatre and the "reality" t.v. supplied by the likes of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report began to emerge. Also plays built on a self-mocking ironic and neurotic worldview, even one with puppets : Avenue Q (BLR 141022).

Plot quicky :  Urinetown's pay-to-pee toilet musical features Caldwell B. Cladwell as its arch-villain, the entrepreneur who owns all the city's pay toilets. Cladwell owns it all and isn't about to relinquish one wee tinkle if he can hold it together long enough. 

Enter the character -- wait for it -- "Hope". She is Cladwell's daughter. And she falls Kersplatt! in love with the leader of the "pee-for-free" group of rebels headed up by one Bobby Strong, an idealistic studmuffin who's a cleaner. He works at "Amenity #9", the end-of-the-line pissoir on skid road, cheapest john among the city's dozens. Here the queues back right up, legs aplenty crossed in agony. Backups not just because of the numbers but because of the slavic guardian of #9, Miss Pennywise, she a compleat bureaucrat : "If you gotta go, you gotta go through me!" she proclaims. 

Shortly, Strong kidnaps Hope (get it...?) and the race is on to see if Cladwell will buckle to his knees trying to preserve, unsphinctered, his tinkle tax riches. He's always thinkin' about tomorrow don't you know. Or whether the rebels, always thinkin' about today and Freedom now!, will prevail. In the end neither does. 

WYSIWYG :  For context, let's go back to lyricist Greg Kotis. Firehall's production is nothing if not an example of what Kotis termed "a specific kind of goofball, gonzo theatre". Try as it might it doesn't have to be "relevant" at all to work. Thanks to Director Spencer's insight and spin on the script, the play spoofs any intended relevance originally injected by Kotis and Hollman. Okay, the water shortage bit. Notionally the script tries to appeal to the audience to suppress their excess consumption tendencies -- a kind of Suzuki-esque mini-message. But the sermonette factor in no way stands in the way of the rollicking good laugh all audiences will have at the antics on stage. Asked at half-time what she liked about the play the most, my 21-year-old stated flat-out with no prompting : "It's really funny and you don't have to do any thinking at all." 

Character follies capture from Moment 1 : The play in sum is its casting and characters. Their choreography. The music that propels them. And its joyous spoof on musical theatre tropes from the last 50 years. 

Particular characters in this production stand out, right from its opening lines. David Adams as Officer Lockstock acts as the play's narrator, sharing the task with Tracey Power reprising her Jessie-nominated role from 2006 as Little Sally. Adams' booming baritone and winking bellicosity are a fine contrast to Power's squeaky insouciance. Power was perfect as she wonders innocently whether bad subject matter and a worse title might be enough to kill a theatre show from the get-go.

Meghan Gardiner pulls off Penelope Pennywise, the biffy guard and money-grabber, with terrific oomph. Her singing is powerful tuneful stuff to enjoy.

Quickly we meet Bobby Strong played by Anton Lipovetsky. Lipovetsky is his customary grinny ironic self throughout who utterly charmed the opening night squad of ticket-buyers and freebie critics like me.

Caldwell B. Cladwell, the entrepreneur of Urine Good Company, is executed with hyper-exaggeration of stereotype, dare I say deliciously so by local favourite Andrew Wheeler. 

And then there's Andrew Cohen the dance captain of the troupe. Omigosh what moves. Most of them designed to mimic the Jets / Sharks blacktop jungle quick-step from West Side Story. Pure delight to watch.

As Hope Cladwell, Michelle Bardach delivers the goods very capably as Dad's university-grad fax-&-copier attendant, first off, then as a co-revolutionary by play's end after loverboy Strong is dumped overboard, literally, right before Papa Cladwell gets his deserved comeuppance too.

Names below, each actor contributed cleverly and crisply to the storyline and Spencer's desired satirical emphasis for them, not the least in the "big show parody" numbers where we see funnin' and light-hearted jabs at not only West Side Story, also Les Miserables and Fiddler On The Roof. Individual shout-outs are deserved, too, for David Marr as Cladwell's manservant Mr. McQueen as well as Matt Palmer as the effete Senator Fipp. 

Production values : Words escape me (almost!) to describe the awe I felt at Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg's choreography of this company, both individually and collectively. Together with Director Spencer this is a song-&-dance fete of choreography and blocking so tightly imagined and executed -- every piece, bar none -- that breath literally escaped me at times. 

Dramatic spoofs of old Broadway shows though they may have been, the rebel crowd's "Freedom now!" routine along with all the others were simply superb. Tight, tight, tight! conception, direction, execution. 

Just one clanger. During the 2nd Act, during the Hope-as-hostage dance sequences by the rebels. Hope sits stock-still throughout, motionless, as if comatose. Even while serial captors poke and prod her and threaten repeatedly to lynch her. A notable if not serious blocking / direction mis-step there. Albeit gagged and snagged, she needed appropriate facial and body responses to these taunts and threats. 

Musical Director Steve Charles put together a top-notch combo cited below. Great chops from everyone in the Kurt Weill take-off music that underscored the show.

Barbara Clayden as Costume Designer had fun outfitting the group, no question. I have to admit I wasn't quite sure at any given moment whether we were in Dickens' 19th century London or in Steinbeck's 1930's Depression. But no matter. You could almost smell her Amenity #9 characters up in the top row. 

As he invariably does, Ted Roberts put together a very practical but also visually-engaging set. The movable stairs and ladders rising above the sewer-height rafters were utilized to great effect. 

Who gonna like : As mentioned above, if you are a Spamalot or Avenue Q kind of theatre fan, chances are the cheeky crudeness of Urinetown will amuse and entertain you. Most certainly the Friedenberg choreography accompanying the actors' rich voices will stop you dead for pure entertainment value. 

And, oh sure. We might do a bit of reflection on how mankind rapes and pillages Sacred Earth unmercifully. But that would be an almost gratuitous, nearly accidental, fallout. 

Meanwhile, a final point not to be lost in all of this : the performance occurs in the heart of Vancouver's DTES -- where the Oppenheimer Park tent city just was -- and that fact puts Vancouver theatre-goers' relative wealth in perspective. The lady who beseeched a loonie or two from patrons exiting the theatre at show's end put the plight of society's most needy in a bit of a sobering context. As it should. 

For all of the above reasons, this is a Can't miss! performance.

Particulars : November 1-29, 2014 @ Firehall Arts Centre, Cordova @ Gore Street, DTES. Box Office, 604.689.0926. Web = 

Director Donna Spencer. Musical Director Steve Charles. Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. Costume Designer Barbara Clayden. Lighting Designer Rebekah Johnson. Set Designer Ted Roberts.

Featured actors : David Adams, Michelle Bardach, Chris Cochrane, Andrew Cohen, Meghan Gardiner, Katey Hoffman, Patrick Keating, Chris Lam, Anton Lipovetsky, David Marr, Matt Palmer, Tracey Power, Rosie Simon, Shane Snow, Donna Spencer and Andrew Wheeler.

Musicians : James Danderfer, Bonnie Northgraves, Liam MacDonald, Rod Murray.


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