Urinetown. What a dreadful name for a musical – images of nasty hip waders. Richland College’s drama professor Wendy Welch planned to stage the classic musical Fiddler on the Roof this semester, but it wasn’t available. On a hunch she selected the post-apocalyptic “sur-reality” of Gotham-like sewers for a timely, hip, politically relevant show about sustainable challenges, tussling haves and have-nots and the importance of love and peace to human survival. Sound grim? A little shocking in spots, for sure, but Urinetown’s highly entertaining, thanks to Ms. Welch’s clever, crisp staging.
Dystopia reigns supreme due to overpopulation and resource depletion, with pointed reference to 19th century English political economist and demographer Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus. Greedy, evil banker (!) Cladwell B. Cladwell, played with Snidely Whiplash panache by Drew Bramlett, represses the town’s Dickensian rabble by charging them exorbitant fees to use the public toilets, hoards cash (what, a banker?), browbeats politicians and sycophants and murders the occasional upstart. Cladwell’s young, innocent, radiantly lovely daughter falls in love (“But soft, what light…”) with a principled if grimy Jimmy Stewart sort of lad from the wrong side of the plumbing pipes. A curious array of animated, jadedly comic characters lend the production elemental whiffs of Cabaret, West Side Story, Les Miserables, Sweeny Todd, and a faint hint of Our Town, at different times throughout the two act enterprise. Presiding over all action and reminding the audience and cast, often, “This IS a musical”, leers omniscient town cop/narrator, Officer Lockstock, who controls the ebb and flow of the plot and drives the show’s rapid-fire timing.
Lockstock’s portrayal is integral to the show’s success. Director Welch had the good fortune to cast one of the region’s finest song and dance men and comic actors—Shane Strawbridge—in this crucial role. Impeccable timing, rollicking entrances, commanding presence, a soaring, well-supported, in tune singing voice with excellent diction –Strawbridge is a joy to watch perform and must inspire the young cast members treading the boards with him with his infectious enthusiasm and focused energy. Clint Hill and Rachel Legaspi are well matched as the romantic duo, Bobby and Hope. In Act I opening night, Hill’s singing pitch strayed a bit; by Act II he seemed to have found his vocal stride. Legaspi has a rich, warm, expressive instrument that sounds mature for her years and promises a great future. She’s a true talent with eye-catching stage presence, singing or speaking. In the comic relief role of Little Sally, a contrast to Strawbridge’s Lockstock, Katherine Gentsch brings charm and spunk and physical versatility to her portrayal. As the villainess with a changeable heart of gold, Delynda Moravec embodies the most Dickensian character of all in hard-edged Penelope Pennywise and elicits whoops and guffaws from the attentive audience.
Urinetown won the 2002 Tony Award for original score and demands quite a bit from its lead actors and chorus. The show’s strongest moments occur when the entire ensemble of twenty is singing and dancing at full tilt up and down the multi-level expressionistic set. Nary a detectable bobble, nor hesitation in blocking, appeared to take place opening night in Richland College’s production. Vocal harmonies flowed with well-rehearsed professionalism. Sometimes the live band, placed behind the staging area, overpowered the miked singers, a solvable issue.
Musical theatre a dying art form? No one in Richland College’s auditorium opening night would believe that. Urinetown is definitely NOT your granny’s musical, portrays issues and relationships through searing satire that could hurtle a rightwing xenophobe into an apoplectic snit of outrage. It gives the musical art form wide spectrum relevance for today’s youth, both on stage and as audience. For art to instruct and entertain with validity, it must present a viable world through accessible metaphor and language. Excellent choice of shows for our time, delightful, engaging production, Urinetown speaks about YOUR town and to the hearts of all.
Phot0 by Tasleem Khan: Clint Hill and Rachel Legaspi