A Privilege to Pee: “Urinetown” Spoofs Musical Genre

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The year doesn’t matter, only the time. It’s early in the morning and everyone has to use the loo. In the dystopian world of Urinetown, however, a water shortage has caused the power-grubbing corporations to tax the public toilets. Any attempts to dodge taxes by finding the nearest bush result in a police beatdown and exile to the mythical, all-feared Urinetown. As one character sings, “It’s a privilege to pee.”

Our hero in this tale of injustice is the resolute everyman, Bobby Strong (Austin Ferris). As every hero needs a ladylove, Bobby’s heart belongs to the effervescent Hope (Deidre Doyle), the daughter of greasy Caldwell B. Cladwell (Isaac Samuelson), the businessman who instigated the toilet tax. When Hope convinces Bobby to follow his heart, he starts a revolution. Will we hear the people sing?

Parodies are fickle creatures that are rarely entertaining when not handled by the firmest of hands. Luckily, the College Players’ production of “Urinetown” is solid. More so, each element, strong on its own, comes together with the rest to create a great sardonic satire.

The actors do a fine job of keeping their characters, virtually caricatures, from becoming dull. Austin Ferris adds wryness to the heroic Bobby, while Isaac Samuelson practically leaves a trail of slime as an evil capitalist. Most impressive, however, is the depth of the ensemble. There are no nameless voices in the ensemble-each cast member stands out, from Cladwell’s bunny-hopping lackeys to Bobby’s “West Side Story”-channeling revolutionaries.

A common pitfall in musical theater, especially comedy, is the tendency to rely too much on dialogue. Not so in “Urinetown”. Choreographer and director Sheena McIntyre and Joey Price have taken every humorous line and given it a nonverbal counterpart. And of course, it’s a musical, so expect plenty of song-and-dance numbers. As “Urinetown” is also a satire, it takes elements from many popular musicals, such as the bottle dance scene from “Fiddler on the Roof.” These different forms of homage are skillfully done and sure to make any musical theater geek squeal.

Often in musical parodies, the script relies on its wit in lieu of strong music. Urinetown does not fall into this trap. Though the score playfully hints at “Les Miserables” and “Evita,” it nevertheless contains plenty of its own catchy tunes. Combined with inventive choreography and skilled acting, many of the numbers are supremely catchy, such as the obligatory villain song “Don’t Be the Bunny” and the “West Side Story” riff “Snuff the Girl.” Sometimes, the acoustics suffer hiccups where it is difficult to understand some of the singers, but these lapses are few and far between.

Though the show addresses issues such as environmental policy, freedom, and capitalism, it is best to view it as a comedy. Otherwise, it might start sounding too full of itself. There is a fine line between being snarky and being smug, and “Urinetown” sometimes sashays a bit too close towards becoming the latter, but the lively cast and solid direction keep the emphasis on the humor, right where it should be.

Sometimes it is easier to make an audience cry than laugh. Comedy is a difficult medium and parody the hardest of all. Luckily, the College Players are up to the challenge. “Urinetown” is a strong, entertaining show that is not to be missed.

“Urinetown” begins the second weekend of its run tonight at Presentation Theater in the Education Building. The show plays Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets can be bought at the door or by calling 415-422-6133. $10 for students, $15 general admission, $5 for members of College Players.

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