Skylight Music Theatre Stages An Ingenious “URINETOWN”
Reviewed by: Matthew Perta
Did I really want to see a politically charged Broadway show about corporate greed and social irresponsibility, that’s also supposed to be a bit on the gross side, especially on the night of a bad news day? (There was another tragic school shooting, this time in Texas, earlier in the day.) This was the question occupying my mind as I headed to the Broadway Theatre Center in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward to review the Tony Award-winning Urinetown The Musical staged by the Skylight Music Theatre as its season finale.
But right from the opening number the Skylight shattered any pre-conceived notions I may have had about Urinetown The Musical, thanks to a first-rate production that rolls along merrily – but crudely, yet in a hilarious and touching way. Sensational acting by a talented cast of performers, delightful choreography, imaginative sets and colorful costumes made for a fun-filled evening in the theater.
In a Gotham-like metropolis, residents are dealing with a drought that’s gone on for 20 years, resulting in a ban on private toilets. Public restrooms are being controlled by a mega-corporation called The Urine Good Company, or UGC. Residents must pay to use the toilets, and if they break the law they’re sent to a penal colony called “Urinetown,” never to be heard from again. But just where is this Urinetown?
The town’s desperate are lined up at what’s called “Public Amenity #9,” run by the authoritarian Penelope Pennywise and her second banana, Bobby Strong. The show’s opening number, “Too Much Exposition,” is rousing, effectively setting the stage (no pun intended) for all the zaniness and drama that’s about to come. The action then shifts to the corporate offices of UGC headed by CEO Caldwell B. Cladwell, who is contemplating fee hikes for public toilets with Senator Fipp, while Cladwell’s well-educated and properly-behaved daughter, Hope, is standing nearby, ready and eager to learn the business from daddy. The musical salute to The Boss by his underlings, “Mr. Cladwell,” – complete with plungers – is just about the most ingenious thing I’ve ever seen.
Amid the greed and dark humor a love story unfolds between rich girl Hope and Bobby Strong. They meet just as Bobby grapples with bitterness following his father’s arrest for urinating on the street. Despite their different socio-economic backgrounds Hope and Bobby both want to build a new world inhabited by free and happy people. The two fall in love, and break into song with the charming, “Follow Your Heart.” The plot takes a turn for the dramatic when new fee hikes for the toilets are announced, leading Bobby to launch a “pee-for-free rebellion.” The song “Look at the Sky” was so inspiring I wanted to join the cast on stage to sing it with them. Cladwell vows to defeat the rebels, reminding Hope that it’s their duty to obliterate the poor. Cladwell’s ruthless message to Hope is demonstrated with another high stepping, cleverly staged number, “Don’t Be the Bunny.” An uprising at Amenity #9 sparks another dramatic moment, and, well, I won’t give away another inch of the plot, but just know that Urinetown the Musical does not have a happily-ever-after ending. But that’s life, right?
Rick Pendzich and Tim Rebers, command attention on stage as Officers Lockstock and Barrel, respectively; Steven M. Koehler is convincingly sleazy as Caldwell B. Cladwell (Koehler teaches physics and acting – an odd combination – at Milwaukee High School of the Arts); Rachael Zientek gives a lovely, sensitive performance as Hope Cladwell; Amber Smith is excellent as the tyrannical Penelope Pennywise, as is Kaylee Annable as street urchine Little Sally; and Lucas Pastrana gives a winning performance as the tough-as-nails Bobby Strong; his fantastic singing voice was a showstopper, indeed.
There were some opening night jitters obvious to this ear and eye – some of the actors flubbed their lines, and Officers Lockstock and Barrel lost their caps while performing “The Cop Song.” Despite these noticeable flaws, the Skylight is at the top of its game in regional theater with this zany, irresistible, toe-tapping production that drives home a timely message uttered by Hope: “When there is wrong in the world, we must right it.” Yes, Hope, we do. But do we?
Urinetown The Musical runs through June 10 at the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. Tickets can be purchased in person at the Skylight Music Theatre Box Office, Monday through Saturday from noon to 6 p.m., or two hours before performance time. Ticket can also be purchased by calling the box office at (414) 291-7800 or online at www.skylightmusictheatre.org.