Civic kicks off a new season with the meta-musical "Urinetown"
The funny, punny title of Urinetown: The Musical may wrinkle some noses, but the show has been a smash hit off and on Broadway and at theaters across the United States since it opened in New York in 2001. On Sept. 12, the pee-centered satire will kick off the Ann Arbor Civic Theatre’s 90th anniversary year.
“Urinetown: The Musical is the most important musical of the 21st Century with the worst title,” said Rob Roy in an email interview. “In fact, it’s that meta approach to the subject matter that makes it even more relevant to the audience. One is never allowed to just sit and be entertained. Authors Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman specifically brought Bertolt Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt to the show to force the audience to pay attention to the vital subject matter: our way of life is unsustainable.”
Verfremdungseffekt is a German word for a distancing technique used in theater and film to prevent an audience from getting too wrapped up in the story instead of bringing a critical mind to the ideas being explored.
This meta-comedy is a shrapnel satire aiming for big capitalism and populism, bungling government bureaucracy and corrupt business with a format and musical score that lampoons the very idea of serious-minded musical entertainment, including the seminal work of Brecht and his musical collaborator Kurt Weill on The Threepenny Opera. Urinetown was a critical as well as popular success, winning three Tony Awards and many other honors.
The story is unconventional but extremely timely as we face a worldwide environmental and leadership crisis. A 20-year drought has caused a critical water shortage, making private toilets illegal. The corrupt mega-corporation Urine Good Company controls all the restrooms. Everyone must pay to pee and those who don’t face dire consequences. They are exiled to the penal colony, Urinetown.
“In keeping with the Brechtian feel of the show, I’ve gone very minimalist with simple platforms suggesting place and theme,” Roy said. “We’re stripping the stage bare of masking so the audience is constantly being confronted with the artificial nature of the theater-going experience and hopefully refocused on the meaning, not just being ‘entertained’ or ‘taken out of themselves.'"
Kotsis and Holland use many Brechtian touches including character-defining names.
“Greg Kotsis explained that the characters’ names just came out in the writing,” said Roy. “In fact, many of the supporting characters have the best names, but are never addressed by those names on stage: Robby the Stockfish, Little Becky Two-Shoes, and Hot Blades Harry are prime examples.”
The play is introduced by Officer Lockstock (who has a partner named Barrel) and Little Sally.
Chris Grimm plays Lockstock.
“Officer Lockstock is a complicated character,” said Grimm in an email interview. “At times he’s the chummy narrator of our tale; at others, he’s a cruel, sadistic enforcer of the unfair laws handed down by an unforgiving government. If you ask him, he’d tell you he’s a pragmatist, advising others to ‘keep their heads down’ and do what must be done for a world in crisis. He’s driven by a sense of duty to his community but also clearly enjoys dishing out punishment.”
Roy said his cast has come well-prepared.
“The cast was all-in on the premise because of the depth of the material,” he said. “Everything has layers of meaning and recurring gags that they all could identify with. And, considering that you still have to pay to pee in many parts of the world (Europe being a prime example), we should count our blessings that McDonald’s allows people to use their toilets whether you purchase something or not.”
Grimm said the cast has had fun rehearsing.
“It’s already so full of silly moments and Rob Roy has done a great job fostering an environment where we feel free to play around and try to make each other laugh,” Grimm said. “Some of the best moments of the show have grown out of this freedom to experiment.”
Urinetown is a musical comedy, romance, and melodrama that spoofs itself, even in the music.
“The music from the show is also incredibly meta, because all the numbers mimic stylistic conventions from classic Broadway: ‘What is Urinetown’ echoes Fiddler on the Roof, ‘Act 1 Finale' is Les Miserables, ‘Mr. Cladwell’ is Hello Dolly, and so on,” Roy said. “ ‘Run Freedom Run’ might be my favorite, but it’s hard to say because all the numbers are great, curtain to curtain.”
Grimm chimes in on several songs as part of the ensemble.
“Lockstock’s featured number is descriptively called ‘Cop Song’ and involves a lot more dancing than I anticipated going into rehearsals,” Grimm said. “The challenge with ‘Cop Song’ is keeping up with the dance routine and the fast-paced, tongue-twister lyrics while also remembering to breathe occasionally.”
Naki Kripfgans is the music director for the show with Lexi Janda directing the choreography.
In addition to Grimm, others in key roles in the large cast are John Tramp as Bobby Strong, Trisha Fountain as Penelope Pennywise, Lily Gechter as Little Sally, Jeff Steinhauer as Caldwell Cladwell, and Sophia Cannella as Hope Cladwell.
Roy and Grimm want audiences to take away more than just laughs and good music.
“With any satire, you hope the audience can connect with the ideas in the show and see parallels in the real world,” Grimm said. “Urinetown’s satire is pretty broad, but I think think that lets it highlight these very basic human impulses and reactions to crisis.”
Grimm wondered when the next world crisis strikes if we can do any better than the people in Urinetown.
“After all, the dystopia we see in the show seems less preposterous when I think about the people in Capetown, who, in the last few years, found themselves rationing toilet flushes to avoid running out of drinking water,” Grimm said.
Roy said he would like to see the show stimulate some action.
“If nothing else, I’d like the audience to leave thinking a little bit more critically about the real and present danger of global climate change and what they individually can do to help us back from the brink,” he said. “Write your elected officials and demand action.”
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre production of "Urinetown: The Musical" will be presented at 7:30 pm on Thursday, Sept. 12, 8 pm on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 13-14, and 2 pm on Sunday, Sept. 15 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, 911 N. University, on the central campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets, call 734-971-2228 or visit www.a2ct.org.