Urinetown: The Musical opened on Broadway in 2001, but its path from lyricist Greg Kotis traveling Europe, encountering a pay toilet, getting an idea for a story, joining with Mark Hollman, writing the lyrics together, Hollman writing the music, previewing the show at the New York’s Fringe Festival, and getting it on Broadway, was filled with pitfalls. Mainly, producers were turned off by the title.
Eventually, the Bertolt Brecht-style musical, filled with parodies of Broadway shows and satires of capitalism, social irresponsibility, the legal system and populism, found the Araca Group.
Araca, a New York company is composed of three young men from the west side of Cleveland. Brothers Matthew and Michael Rego met Hank Unger during a community theater production of the The Music Man in 1985, which I directed. And in spite of my advice, they have gone on to be theatrical wunderkinds.
The trio formed a production company and named it after the Italian town from which “grandpa” Rego (remember Rini-Rego Supermarkets?) came. The trio had produced The Vagina Monologue and were looking for their next show. Urinetown was it. They have since produced such Broadway hits as Wicked, ’night Mother, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Rock of Ages and the newly opened hit SpongeBob SquarePants.
The musical opened off-Broadway, then moved on to the Great White Way in September 2001 to strong positive reviews, gained back the initial investment in a record-breaking six weeks, and closed in early 2004, after 26 previews and 965 performances. National tours and local performances have followed.
The tale centers on the idea that “In the not-so-distant future, a terrible water shortage and 20-year drought has led to a government ban on private toilets and a proliferation of paid public toilets, owned and operated by a single megalomaniac company: The Urine Good Company. If the poor don’t obey the strict laws prohibiting free urination, they get sent to the dreaded and mysterious ‘Urinetown.’
After too long under the heel of the malevolent Caldwell B. Cladwell, the poor people stage a revolt led by a brave young hero (Bobby Strong). They fight for the freedom to pee “wherever you like, whenever you like, for as long as you like, and with whomever you like.”
Sound preposterous? Were you aware that every November 19, the United Nations sponsors World Toilet Day to raise awareness that 2.4 billion people do not have a toilet to use? The reasons? Drought, poverty, and government and business control over the flow of water.
Urinetown: The Musical is fun, but it is more than escapism and catchy tunes. This is a tale of greed, corruption, love and revolution in a city where water is worth its weight in gold.
Messages pervade, such as what happens when big business is given the right to control our lives. Think of the pharmaceutical and medical companies and their stranglehold over our health. What happens when citizens have their rights taken? What is it like to be lied to continually in an attempt to push a political and economic agenda? Think Trump and his motley crew!
Think of the rape of the environment caused by loosening the Clean Air Act, elimination of national monuments, and the attitude of “drill,” “drill” “drill” and “dig, dig, dig,” damn the environment.
Patrick Ciamacco, Blank Canvas’s Artistic Director, loves farce. He revels in scripts that are out of the norm. Give him fake blood, sexual titillation, and social deviance, and he’s all in. This becomes obvious when you consider that he has produced “Debbie Does Dallas” (incidentally, another Araca show), The Rocky Horror Show, Silence! The Musical, Wild Party, Reefer Madness, Bat Boy and Triassic Parq the Musical.
Ciamacco and his staff, as evidenced by the screaming, clapping, raucous opening night audience, have created another winner with Urinetown.
It never ceases to amaze what can be created on the theater’s postage stamp-sized stage. How choreographer Katie Zarecki squeezes all those bodies on the platform, yet has them dance in a semblance of order, is a wonder.
Not only did Ciamacco get the cast in character, make sense of the lines and get lots of laughs, but he designed the lights and sound and built the sets. Talk about being “all in.”
He is ably supported by musical director and keyboardist Matthew Dolan and his well-tuned band (Aaron T. Phillips, Jason Stebelton, Keith Turner and Marcus Greene).
The cast is strong. Rob Albrecht as Office Lockstock, the narrator, has a wonderful voice filled with irony and satirical overtones. Dayshawnda Ash comes close to stealing the show as Little Sally. Stephanie Harden is believable as Hope Caldwell, the evil Caldwell B. Cladwell’s daughter and girl- friend of our hero Bobby Strong. Daryl Kelley could be a little more boy next door/ awe shucks as Bobby, but he does nicely with his solos. The chorus sings and dances with vigor.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Urinetown: The Musical is flushed with success and audiences will enjoy themselves, while gaining some insight into political and economic corruption. Get tickets early as the Blank Canvas Theatre is small and this show should be a big box office success!
Urinetown: The Musical runs through Sat 12/16. For tickets and directions go to blankcanvastheatre.com.
[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]