The Jungle Theater‘s delightful, exuberant production of Urinetown is occasionally hoisted on its own humorous petard. The show first premiered in New York over a decade ago—its brand of insider humor—commenting on the cheesy musical even as it presents us with, well, a cheesy musical—has infected our entire culture, from television comedies to blog posts. While it’s still packed with laughter (though more chuckles than belly laughs), its own success has taken the bite out of some of its satire. But its tale of a greedy CEO who uses a water shortage as an excuse to tyrannize a small town has become oddly prescient—both environmentally and for its sneaky “Occupy” infected politics. And the faux-Brecht/Weil construction of the whole enterprise has an infectious giddiness that lifts it above a mere joke-machine.
For the uninitiated: Urinetown is a musical about a small town (“any town, your town”) trapped in a grimy, post-apocalyptic world—the apocalypse in this case being a devastating water shortage, exploited by “Urine Good Company”—a chain of pay-toilets, continuously raising their rates, and wallowing in their power over the helpless poor, who will pay any price to relieve themselves. This, uh, tension leads to a revolution—believe or not, hilarity ensues.
Most of it curtesy of Bradley Greenwald. His Officer Lockstock—narrator, lackey and keeper of the peace, anchors the show in every sense of the word. It goes beyond Bradley’s remarkable vocal range and power. His easy command of the show’s very specific humor— his precise delivery of the name, “Little Sally”, or his “accidental” blurting of the ugly secret behind Urinetown— shows an instinctual grasp of just how far to go with caricature—how to lace it with just enough character and skill we never dismiss him as a cartoon. Midway through the show he even combines his two talents, holding a note so long and in such a way we’re amazed by his voice even as we’re laughing at it.
He’s joined at this high altitude by Elisa Pluhar as Little Sally, the diminuitive waif who shares a continuing dialogue with Officer Lockstock throughout the show about—the show itself. The best thing I can say about Ms Pluhar is that I noted her performance last because, for most of the show, I thought of her as “Little Sally” rather than an actress playing a role.
Kersten Rodau’s Penelope Pennywise, ruthless mistress of Public Amenity #1—a pay-toilet on the seedy side of town—likewise achieves the perfect combination of charisma and absurdity. She knocks “Privilege to Pee” out of the ballpark—it’s a cruel tease when she sings again later in the show—only because it’s an ensemble number and we want more of that incredible presence and voice.
Randy Schmeling and Jodi Tripp explode us into Act Two with “Snuff That Girl”, a rousingly bizarre song about the revolutionaries killing their wealthy hostage just for the hell of it. The two manage to create a fiercely real and hilarious pair of Jacobins with very little stage time. No small feat in this menagerie of oversized personalities.
In general, Act Two is an explosion of music and laughs from beginning to end. Act One starts out strong, but starts to lag, almost as if director and choreographer John Command lost interest after the first big splash. But the second acts soars, ironically because Mr Command gives us some technically impressive “musical numbers” in the traditional sense of the phrase. Act One also tracks the burgeoning Romeo & Juliet romance between the two ingénues, Bobby Strong (Patrick Morgan), the pauper who leads the revolt against the greedy toilet magnate, and that same magnate’s naïve daughter, Hope Cladwell (Tiffany Seymour). Mr Morgan and Ms Seymour have wonderful voices, but making a joke out of the bland ingénue subplot sometimes runs perilously close to just being a bland ingénue subplot—both actors do better in the tumult of Act Two.
As usual, the Jungle’s production team gets the job done. The set (Bain Boehlke), Costume (Kathy Kohl), Sound (Sean Healey) and lighting design (Barry Browning) have just the right Brechtian flavor, and musical director Raymond Berg does a great job with the orchestra. The multi-character ensemble (check your program) juggles doubling, crowd scenes and those old-style musical numbers.
In the spirit of Urinetown I’ll make you aware that this last paragraph is the wrap-up. Traditionally, I’d bring various threads of the review together in a way that demonstrates my wisdom and cleverness. Instead, I’ll just say: Funny, delightful—Act Two better than Act One—“sneaky” politics ultimately conservative—a handful of amazing performances. You should go.