Urinetown: The Musical

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Urinetown: The Musical holds a special place in my theatergoing memory. I first saw it in New York City days after the September 11, 2001, attacks because then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani told me to. He made a public announcement that New Yorkers should get out, go to restaurants, go to the theater, because, he said,  “I want the people of New York to be an example to the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, that terrorism can’t stop us.” I dutifully did as he said. So it was that I found myself in the Henry Miller’s Theatre (now the Stephen Sondheim Theatre) gasping with astonished laughter at what had to have been one of the most irreverent and insubordinate musicals ever to make it to Broadway. And when in Act Two the male lead Bobby Strong sang the show’s gorgeous and gospelized “Run, Freedom, Run,” it sent chills down my spine—it was the perfect anthem in that moment for all our nation’s hopes and dreams.

That memory was with me as I watched the earnest, energetic, and enjoyable production that has been directed by Patrick M. Doneghy for Dominion Stage, one of DC Metro’s most adventurous and enduring community theaters. And I had to marvel at how since 9/11 this unlikeliest of Broadway hits—with its not-so-subtle revolutionary and insurrectionary  political subtext—has been embraced across the country by nonprofessional performers and local audiences who rediscover together this peculiarly inspiring theatrical treat.

“Run, Freedom, Run,” indeed.

The show starts off by making fun of its own off-putting title, in narrative patter between police cop Officer Lockstock (Christopher Guy Thorn) and street urchin Little Sally (Dana Robinson). Their cheeky humor sets the tone for the quirky story about to unfold. A long  drought has caused a dreadful shortage of water. To conserve it, people are required to pay to pee in privatized pissoirs owned by dastardly capitalists who are protected by a thuggish police state. “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” sings the strict enforcer of bladder control Penelope Pennywise (Katherine Lipovsky).  People are mercilessly punished if they tinkle illegally elsewhere. That silly premise promises lots more potty humor than there actually is. Funnily enough, the show is pretty darn PG.

There’s also a touching love story across class lines. Bobby Strong (Matt Liptak) begins as a lowly urinal guard but soon becomes a rabble-rousing street activist and leads a populist pee-for-free movement (“Yes Wee Can!” says a demonstrator’s sign). Along the way Bobby is smitten by Hope Cladwell (Melissa Berkowitz), the beautiful and insouciant daughter of Caldwell B. Cladwell (Michael Bagwell), callous CEO of the megacorporation that profits from the pee fees. “Follow Your Heart” is Bobby and Hope’s sweet Act One duet.

As spirited as this show is, the opening-night performance I saw in the Gunston Middle School auditorium unluckily lacked in precision what it evidenced in enthusiasm. A good many music cues, for instance, were picked up a tad late (which when fixed will enliven the show’s momentum). The amplification system sometimes balked and squawked (but I’d bet Sound Designer Kevin DeMine and his crew can have these problems fixed quickly). And opening-night jitters occasionally rattled the ensemble’s confidence a bit (though their perky esprit was infectious).

Dominion Stage has got to be commended for mounting this nervy musical. Urinetown—which is all about people so poor they haven’t got a pot to pee in—belongs on every theater lover’s bucket list; it’s a must-see at least once in one’s lifetime.  Besides its funny book and bouncy tunes, there’s a whole lot more:  a prescient radical metamessage that is not far removed from that of Occupy Wall Street. Underlying all its giggles, Urinetown: The Musical is a genuinely all-American homage to what we now call the 99 percent.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.

Urinetown: The Musical plays through January 25, 2014, at at Dominion Stage performing at Gunston Arts Center – Theatre One – 2700 S. Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, purchase them online, or at the door.