In a dystopian world where water has nearly dried up, private toilets no longer exist. Now people are forced to pay to use pissoirs and woe betide any who think they can simply publicly relieve themselves for they will pay a high price indeed. This is Urinetown: The Musical and it is currently playing at the City Theatre of Independence.
It’s amazing how fate works. I was sitting in my hotel room in Oak Grove, MO looking for something to do when I stumbled upon this theatre and it happened to be opening night for this show. I’d heard good things about the production so decided to buy a ticket. But, dang it, it was so good that I felt compelled to write a review for it.
This show is a lot of fun.
Greg Kotis has written a very clever and satisfying show. Kotis is obviously a fan of musical theatre as this show has influences from Newsies, Les Miserables, and West Side Story. But he turns the genre on its head and inside out. The show is meta as the two narrators are aware they’re in a musical and often reveal salient plot points before they occur. It’s also surprisingly dark, but that’s often forgotten due to the comedic presentation and the light and fun music of Kotis and Mark Hollman. Kotis and Hollman borrow from many types of music as you get show tunes, ballads, and a truly rocking Gospel number that brought the house down.
Coralyn Martin provides some truly fine directing for this piece as she just dives into its absurdity. The staging is the best I’ve ever seen in a production as she doesn’t just use the entire theatre space. She uses the entire building. Cast members were wandering the lobby before the show and coming out during intermission to keep the story going. I also truly admired how the cast members slowly appeared on stage before the show began and stayed in character from their first appearance to their final bow. Martin gets all she can out of the script and guides the actors to very strong performances as they know how to be over the top just enough to be funny, but keep under the point where it would be caricature and ridiculous.
The supporting cast is chock full of good performances, but some real standouts came from Wendy Buchheit who gives a PhD level class in how to be present in a scene. Seldom have I seen such animation in body, facial expressions, and eyes (which seemed to operate independently of each other) as she just threw herself into Hot Blades Harry. Adeana Carr is hilarious as Little Sally. Carr is very convincing as a precocious little kid and I love the touch that she is also the smartest character in the show. Cora Hoaglin has a sizzling debut for the theatre as the crotchety, semi-villainous Penelope Pennywise who manages the pissoir on the poor side of town. Hoaglin has mastered the fine art of projection and could have a fine future in opera with that superhuman soprano which gets to take center stage when she belts out “It’s a Privilege to Pee”.
De’Markus Howell had the audience in the palm of his hand from the moment he stepped on the stage as Officer Lockstock for he just has that natural “it” presence. It’s an interesting twist to have a villain be the narrator and Howell seems to wallow in his corrupt nature especially as he knows he’s virtually bulletproof from repercussions due to his godlike status as the narrator. I was also extremely amused by his theatrical poses every time he said the show was a musical. Howell also has a deadly baritone which thrilled the audience in “Urinetown” and “Cop Song”.
Alex West epitomizes the greedy CEO as Caldwell B. Cladwell. West revels in his power as the ruler of this pathetic world as he takes every last cent from the public to fund a lavish trip to Rio. But West also gives Cladwell the minutest picoparticle of decency because his policies have actually enabled people to survive. He just snuffs out the decency by making them pay through the nose to use a toilet. West also has a superlative tenor which shines brightly in “Mr. Cladwell” and “Don’t Be the Bunny”.
Olivia Franklin is very sweet as Hope Cladwell. Assuredly, she isn’t the brightest bulb on the tree and comes off even less intelligent as that due to her innocence. But you have to admire her determination to see the best in every brigand and every hopeless situation, even as she helps to contribute, albeit unwittingly, to that hopelessness by not understanding just how truly dire things are in this world. Franklin’s honey of a soprano gets to do the heart tugging numbers of “Follow Your Heart” and “I See a River”.
Ken Koval makes for a worthy hero as Bobby Strong. Koval ticks all the boxes of a hero’s rise as starts as the unwilling participant in the machine of this world before the death of his father and the awakening of his heart inspire him to lead a revolution against the greedy elite. Koval gives Bobby a unique blend of courage, naivete, and cowardice. He also has a bright tenor which can be hopeful as in “Look to the Sky”, loving as in “Tell Her I Love Her”, or just plain fun as in my favorite number “Run, Freedom, Run”.
Mike Hadley has designed a nice derelict set of a beaten concrete edifice so realistic that I thought it was stone. Hadley also skillfully designed the lights with the green phantasmagoric lights used when the dead show up to the use of a simple pinkish spotlight on Hope whenever she launches into a solo number. Valerie Minniear’s costumes well suit the status of the characters from the cheap clothes and rags of the poor to the elegant suits and dresses of the elite and I really liked the sparkling vests and dresses of the performers in the “Mr. Cladwell” number. Carlye Stone’s choreography really got to sparkle in the second act with the big flashy numbers of “Snuff that Girl” and “Run, Freedom, Run”. Blair Walker and his orchestra rise to the challenge of the varied score like champs and strike every emotional note and fun tone with aplomb and kudos to Walker for the funniest cameo of the night.
There were a few blips during the night. Feedback drowned out dialogue at certain points. Microphones seemed to be a bit of a mixed bag. Some members of the supporting cast also need to be more animated in the group scenes. I could tell they were working the scenes in their heads. Now they just need to push out the mental work to their bodies.
This show was a delightful and fun surprise with a little something for everyone. If you’re looking for an immersive, rib-tickling good time, then go see Urinetown: The Musical.
Urinetown: The Musical runs through Sept 18 at the City Theatre of Independence. Showtimes are 7:30pm on Fri-Sat and 2pm on Sundays. Tickets cost $12 and can be purchased at the Box Office, by calling 816-370-6654, or visiting citytheatreofindependence.org. The City Theatre of Independence is located in the Powerhouse Theatre within the Roger T. Sermon Center at 201 N Dodgion in Independence, MO.