Reviewed by Judy Richter
Except for its offputting title, there are many reasons to rave about "Urinetown," especially in the Foothill Music Theatre production directed by Jay Manley. The show was first staged in 1999, made its way to Broadway in 2001 and went on to win Tonys for score, book and direction. San Francisco Bay Area audiences got their first look at the show in 2003 when American Conservatory Theater inaugurated the first national tour.
With music by Mark Hollman and lyrics by Hollmann and Greg Kotis, who also wrote the book, "Urinetown" is a delight for lovers of musical theater because of its skillful allusions to greats like Brecht and Weill, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Sondheim and to shows like "Les Miserables," "Evita," "West Side Story,""Fiddler on the Roof" and others. The dances, choreographed by Tyler Risk, honor Fosse, Robbins and favorites like the Charleston. Hence one can constantly delight in figuring out who or what is being evoked from one moment to the next.
"Urinetown" also has strong social and environmental undertones as it tells the story of a Gotham-like city that has suffered from a drought for more than 20 years. Because of the severe shortage of water, people aren't allowed to use private toilets. Instead they must pay for the privilege of using what are euphemistically called public amenities, all controlled by a huge, corrupt corporation, Urine Good Company, or UGC.Those who can't afford to pay to use the public toilets and who do what comes naturally somewhere else are subject to severe punishment. It doesn't take much of a stretch to see parallels to the worsening effects of global warming and other environmental depredations as well as some of the corporate and political scandals that have dominated recent and current headlines.
Despite these serious undertones, the show is great fun because so much of it is tongue-in-cheek and because the writing is so clever. The show also is Brechtian in that it keeps reminding the audience that it's a play. Most of these reminders come from Officer Lockstock (David Curley), who serves as both the show's narrator and one of the cops, along with Officer Barrel (Michael Rhone), who try to maintain order in the city. Other reminders come from the pert Little Sally (Jessica Lynn Carroll), the show's truth-teller.
The plot focuses on young Bobby Strong (Robert Brewer), who leads poor people in a rebellion against UGC after his father, Old Man Strong (Todd Wright), is hauled off for peeing in public and after the company's owner, Caldwell B. Cladwell (Mike R. Padilla), bribes enough legislators to enact higher pee fees. In the meantime, though, Bobby has fallen in love with Cladwell's innocent, good-hearted daughter, Hope (Alice Teeter).
Even though this is a college-community production with only two Equity performers, Brewer as Bobby and Curley as Lockstock, it's carefully polished with committed performances by everyone in the cast. Brewer and Curley are both terrific, but so are their colleagues, especially Teeter as Hope, Carroll as Little Sally, Padilla as Cladwell and Linda Piccone as Ms. Pennywise, manager of Public Amenity #9, where Bobby works.
In addition to Manley's direction and Risk's choreography, the show benefits from Joe Ragey's flexible set, Julie Engelbrecht's costumes, Kurt Landisman's lighting and Catherine Snider's musical direction. It also is a pleasure to attend a musical theater production where the sound designer (Shane Olbourne) realizes that singers don't have to be miked in an intimate space like the Foothill College Playhouse. Consequently, the singing comes through clearly without the distortion or overamplification that mars so many musicals today.