Still Waters

Dark undertones cloud the satiric musical froth of Urinetown.

Urinetownis set after a drought so severe that people no longer have private toilets; everyone must use run-down, unsanitary public amenities controlled by a monster corporation called Urine Good Company. Poor people pay more than they can afford for this privilege, and anyone trying to pee anywhere unauthorized suffers exile to Urinetown -- which is a metaphor for execution.

The musical is lively and funny, with terrific music and witty, exhilarating numbers. It's also full of knowing references. There's a narrator, Officer Lockstock, who serves as a Brechtian distancing device and provides the occasional postmodern chuckle, reminding us often that we're watching a show, and analyzing the author's literary and dramatic devices. There are nods to a plethora of choreographic and musical styles: gospel and church music; Fiddler on the Roof-style dancing; a moment right out of West Side Story; a Fred Astaire move; a Chorus Line number. As staged, costumed and sung, Urinetown's early scenes could have come straight from The Threepenny Opera, and the plot echoes Brecht's commentary on the scheming beggars who struggle to survive in a corrupt society. There are also echoes of Marc Blitzstein's innocently idealistic '30s musical, The Cradle Will Rock, in which oppressed people rise up in search of freedom.

Urinetown can be seen as -- and generally is -- a clever, silly and highly enjoyable pastiche, a bright show that skates lightly over the political realities it evokes. But I sensed a subtext that made me uneasy.

The cast of Urinetown let their voices soar.
The cast of Urinetown let their voices soar.

The contrast between rich and poor is starkly drawn. Scott Pask's brilliant set implies that the entire city has become a maximum-security prison. It's all wrought-iron bars, catwalks and guards' observation stations. Searchlights play along the walls and occasionally sweep the audience. The poor line up at Amenity #9, a bleak, yellow-brick structure, and hand over their pitiful stocks of pennies to Penelope Pennywise (Beth McVey), a bullying prison-matron type.

By contrast, the handsome, imposing head of Urine Good Company, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Ron Holgate) occupies a shining tower full of silvery light. Here he bribes legislators, eggs on his marketers and oversees the general repression.

Naturally, his naive daughter, Hope (Christiane Noll), falls in love with Bobby Strong (Charlie Pollock), who has become the leader of the poor, and eventually realizes that her father is evil. There are shades here of Patty Hearst, the newspaper scion who was kidnapped by a band of violent revolutionaries and eventually joined them. There are also echoes of George Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara, in which an idealistic young woman confronts her industrialist father but is ultimately converted to his perspective. Urinetown's Cladwell is a cartoony version of Major Barbara's Andrew Undershaft, who, as Shaw tells us in his preface, "having grasped the fact that poverty is a crime, knows that when society offered him the alternative of poverty or a lucrative trade in death and destruction, it offered him not a choice between opulent villainy and humble virtue, but between energetic enterprise and cowardly infamy."

Caldwell's ruthlessness is pragmatic, the script seems to suggest, and therefore more essentially ethical than any attempt to help the poor.

Of course, Urinetownis light as a feather and as nihilistic as the average Saturday Night Live skit. But as more and more people in America join the ranks of the homeless and unemployed, it's difficult to find the folks jostling at Amenity #9 entirely funny. It's also easy to compare the play's rationing of toilet facilities with our current medical system, which withholds treatment from those who cannot pay while richly rewarding the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. There is also a terrifying movement afoot, endorsed by the World Bank and such multinational corporations as Monsanto and Bechtel, to privatize water.

When Hope and the rebels overthrow Cladwell, their triumph is followed by ecological disaster. It turns out that the millionaire's murderous policies were, after all, saving water. At the very end of the play, Officer Lockwell raises his arms and cries, "Hail Malthus!" And that's when my unease intensified.

Thomas Malthus was an eighteenth-century political economist who believed that relentless reproduction was dooming humankind. The lower classes were particularly irresponsible and therefore particularly culpable, he declared, and they should be held in check by force. This concept led to eugenics and some of the twentieth century's worst atrocities -- and I can't tell if writer Greg Kotis and composer and lyricist Mark Hollmann are advocating or mocking it. (Shaw came up with a somewhat different solution from Malthus's -- that the poor should be given universal pensions and thus released from poverty.)

The traveling production of Urinetown is first-rate, and it's wonderful to see an A-list cast in Denver. As Lockstock, Tom Hewitt romps away with the show. He's tall and authoritative, with a voice that reverberates in the bass whether he's speaking or singing; he's also willing to undercut all this potential gravitas with some of the goofiest moves I've ever seen. But every single performer in this cast would be a standout in a show less packed with talent. Christiane Noll is touching, sweet, dumb, literal-minded and altogether delicious as Hope. Ron Holgate is masterful as the silver-haired Cladwell, dancing and singing with aplomb and plotting his evil schemes in the best movie-villain manner. Meghan Strange plays Little Sally as a cross between Little Orphan Annie and Oliver Twist's Artful Dodger. Beth McVey is a generously expressive performer with an amazing voice who can switch from prison matron to sentimental mother (with a side of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as needed. Even the smallest roles are played to the eccentric hilt, and every actor has at least a few fabulous moments.

This is a show I'd love to love.

 
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