Urinetown, the Musical

PHAMALY shows you how to go with the flow.

Urinetown, the Musical, the show about a world in which a money-grubbing corporation controls a population's right to relieve itself by charging exorbitant fees, is not as odd and daring as it once seemed, but it remains highly entertaining, cleverly written and filled with witty, hummable songs in several styles, from gospel to folk, Kurt Weill to Broadway musicals, even a hint of gypsy violin. The script is a send-up of Bertolt Brecht and of the musical form itself, using self-referential techniques to keep the audience at an emotional distance and placing the character of Officer Lockstock, who's both villain and narrator, front and center. Lockstock analyzes the action and his own role in it for the audience, and he offers a continual stream of caustic commentary to a big-eyed orphan called Little Sally. Brecht was serious about his message, of course, while Urinetown authors Mark Kollmann (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (who wrote the book on which the musical is based, and also some of the lyrics) are pretending not to be serious about theirs. They deride the ruthless evil of the rich while also showing — as Brecht did — the corruption of the poor. But they also postulate that ultimately, it's the poor who represent the greater problem, because they live only for the present and can't be trusted to control themselves. Without corporate-driven market forces, the teeming hordes would simply piss, shit and flush themselves into environmental oblivion.

Kollman and Kotis don't reveal their it's-all-the-fault-of-the-poor philosophy — except in a jokey and roundabout way — until the very end of the play, when Lockstock cries out "Hail, Malthus." A program note explains that Thomas Malthus was an eighteenth-century thinker best known for predicting that unchecked population growth would destroy the planet, and many people see the Urinetown reference as simply an ecological warning. But other bits of dialogue support the uglier aspects of Malthus's thinking. To realize how ridiculous this slant is, you need only think about how the exemplary foresight of health-insurance companies has increased the availability of medical care, or of Halliburton's heart-warming influence on the future of Iraq.

I've seen Urinetownthree times now, and this current PHAMALY production is the best version yet. One reason is that director Steve Wilson has thought all this through and gives equal emphasis to all sides of the equation. Leonard Barrett is terrific as Officer Lockstock, insanely funny and full of inspired vocal and physical pranks — but every now and then, he's genuinely menacing. The officers of the repressive corporation, Urine Good Company, are all played by blind actors — which is not only a pointed directorial comment, but a fact that makes their meticulously in-sync choreography a wonder (choreographers Debbie Stark and Cindy Bray have a miraculous way of turning the cast's physical problems, which range from spina bifida to Parkinson's disease, into eye-pleasing and expressive movement). One of the UGC officers looks like a Nazi and has a pronounced German accent; CEO Caldwell B. Cladwell — played with villainous relish by Don Mauck — sounds unarguably Texan.

Kathleen Traylor in Urinetown, the Musical.
Michael Ensminger
Kathleen Traylor in Urinetown, the Musical.

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Presented by PHAMALY through August 19, Space Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 303-893-4100, www.phamaly.org.

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The production skillfully balances satire against genuine emotion. Cladwell's daughter, Hope, is as blindly sentimental as her father is ruthless. When she falls in love with Bobby Strong, leader of the rebel poor, she sings him a song called "Follow Your Heart" that's utterly and sublimely silly, a parody of every idiotic axiom you've ever heard along those lines. But Andrew Caldwell's Bobby is so sincere and appealing, and Juliet Villa sings Hope's song with such brilliance and sweetness, it makes your eyes mist. And then you guffaw.

Of course, the PHAMALY gang humanizes the action just by virtue of who they are — people who understand physical problems and the difficulties of getting along in the world far more deeply than most of us. But at the same time, their version is the most graphic and down-to-earth I've seen. In this Urinetown, emptying a catheter bag costs as much as urinating in a toilet. And the moment Little Sally realizes faith healing hasn't worked and falls down on the floor, everyone else on stage takes a tumble, too.

There are many superb performances here: Kathleen Traylor as wheelchair-bound Penelope Pennywise, who goes from snarling corporate watchdog to penitent do-gooder in the course of the evening; Chaz Jacobson as doomed "Old Man" Strong, and eventually a hollow-cheeked ghost; Jason Dorwart, playing it straight as a crooked politician; and Lucy Roucis bringing gentle authority to the role of Bobby's mother. Jenna Bainbridge is a lovely Little Sally with a clear, melodious voice. All the supporting roles are played with energy, originality and joy, and Donna Debreceni's musical direction is buoyant.

Wilson's staging makes full use of everything the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' Space Theatre has to offer and then some, with characters whizzing up and down the aisles and popping up in the balconies. When Bobby is about to be executed, he's taken on a long, hooded walk through the flies above the lights, and then tossed — or at least a Bobby-shaped dummy is tossed — not just down to stage level, but through a manhole into the depths of the sewer.

PHAMALY's ability to make you think, laugh and feel all at the same moment is unparalleled. Urinetown may not be as daring as it once seemed, but it's hard to imagine it being done better.

 
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