In theatreVCU’s ‘Urinetown (The Musical),’ the name is the funniest thing about the production
Read More: Ariane Belcher, Ben Miller, Briana Larson, Carmen Wiley, Grenville Burgess, Isabella Stansbury, James Stover, Jordon Jones, Levi Meerovich, Matt Ferrell, Matthew Riley, TheatreVCU, Tyler Fauntleroy
Urinetown (The Musical) is suddenly everywhere. This is the second production I have reviewed in as many months, and the fourth production I’ve seen in as many years. All of which is fine with me. It’s a rollicking funny show. Usually.
Urinetown is a clever tongue in cheek musical about the evil “Urine Good Hands” Corporation, which regulates the severe water shortage in their town (eternally perpetuated by their own devices) by denying the populace indoor plumbing and by charging outrageous sums to use public “amenities.” Public Urination is made a capital offense.
The plot concerns a public rebellion of the poor and downtrodden of this town against these practices and weaves an amusing love story between the leader of the revolt and the CEO’s daughter. We never know the real name of the town but learn that “Urinetown” is the code word for the place where urination “criminals” end up after being pushed off a tall building to their death. We can only assume that’s where all the “amenity” by-products are dumped. Yuck!
For once Wikapedia gets it right when it summarizes that “Urinetown … satirizes the legal system, capitalism, social irresponsibility, populism, bureaucracy, corporate mismanagement, and municipal politics. The show also parodies musicals such as The Threepenny Opera, The Cradle Will Rock and Les Misérables, as well as the Broadway musical form itself.” I don’t have to say it any better.
Director James Stover tells us in his program notes that his vision of this production is to set it in the world of the graphic novel.
Only being casually familiar with the genre, I have a general idea of what he means. I suspect his thought was to bring larger than life situations back down to life size and avoid the stylization of satire. He explains that he thinks it best to keep his student actors firmly grounded to create “fully realized characters, existing in an expansive world.” A lofty goal but the reality is that the world of this play is not expansive. You cannot fit a square peg into a round hole.
The world of Urinetown is pretty bleak. A despotic society of miserably treated people drowning in poverty, it’s more stylistically attuned to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis than standard musical theatre fare. The satire, in my view, is critical to lift the tenor of the plot to one which is actually enjoyable to watch.
Take away the satire and you are left with realistic bleakness. The decision, in my opinion is counter-intuitive to the genre. The choice to dampen the satire plays against every line.
This was an opportunity here to teach these students to handle stylized acting in a responsible way. It was also an opportunity to teach comedy. The timing and structure of a joke. The modulation of an absurd situation. You can be honest as an actor while staying true to the genre. There was no need to neuter the comedy.
Stover’s objectives seem to be confined to the acting. Thankfully he allows the designers to create a satirical world and he had no other option with the production numbers. Singing and dancing is as antithetical to realism as you can get and enjoyably so.
Briana Larson thankfully has no choice other than to stage exuberant musical numbers. That’s how they’re written. Her choreography is joyous. She manipulates her very talented ensemble nimbly around the huge space they have to fill. It is in these musical numbers that the cast is allowed to shine. And they do.
The lead actors bear the brunt for the lack of stylization. Tyler Fauntleroy and Isabella Stansbury play our lovers. Both are excellent and expressive singers. Mr. Fauntleroy while honest in his acting was left short a few heroic licks playing Bobby Strong. Ms. Stansbury likewise had less at stake denying her audience empathy.
Carmen Wiley’s Penelope Pennywise, whose strength of voice and character was like a siren cutting through fog came off like a stern headmistress without the levity. James Russell could have luxuriated in a very funny “Snidley Whiplash” type performance but was curiously rendered ineffective and weak.
Officer Lockstock and Little Sally have become icons of the musical theatre. They are our play’s narrators and commentators. Matt Ferrell, who I adored as Frank’N’Furter in Rocky Horror, plays Officer Lockstock. While he brings a knowing maturity to the Officer, he comes off realistically evil which sacrifices his relationship with the audience.
I did like Ariane Belcher’s Little Sally. The role is pretty much tamper-proof. She is the questioning voice of the audience and doesn’t depend on satire to be effective. I don’t know how old Ms. Belcher is but her Little Sally can’t be more than 10. I was very happy to see an appropriately sized actress play the role. She plays straight man to Officer Lockstock with a scrumptious cuteness that is hard to resist.
Perhaps the only character that was improved by taking away the schtick was Matthew Riley’s Mr. McQueen. Despite his name, he was the least campy of any McQueen I’ve seen. Whatever the character’s proclivities, Riley brought a human being to the table not a RuPaul sidekick. The character is just as effective being a nerd. Thank you.
Also tamper proof are the written comic bits. Jordon Jones and Levi Meerovich have a running bit in the play that hits every time. Jones plays Bobby Strong’s father and Meerovich “Tiny Tom” (Meerovich and I both belong in the not so tiny category). After Jones breaks the law by publicly urinating, he is executed, but not before he says to his son “Bobby, reason with the woman. I’m a little short this morning” and Tiny Tom looks over his shoulder to deliver the line “no shorter than yesterday … unless I’ve grown!” You can almost hear the rim shot on the snare drum go “Ba dump bum” after the bit. Finally, some funny.
Grenville Burgess’ set is clever and functional. His palette explodes with the same burst of colors he displayed in his set for Croaker at Virginia Rep. His moveable set pieces give needed levels and texture to the space. Xiaolin-Lan’s costumes and Jill Parzych’s wigs were sumptuous in their nattiness. Michael Jarrett’s lighting can be seen all over town these days and he does not disappoint here. VCU has the finest equipment around and Jarrett knows how to use it effectively.
I praise his design for TheatreLAB/Yes, And!’s production of Venus in Fur this week as well.
Maestro Ben Miller is responsible for the excellent vocal and instrumental performances. Miller is one of a few “go to” musical directors in town and as elsewhere this production is in safe and masterly hands.
TheatreVCU usually produces musicals that are as good as any, and better than some legitimate musical theatre productions in Richmond.
Their Man of La Mancha and Rocky Horror Picture Show productions of recent memory were stellar. This production of Urinetown may have miss-stepped, but there is no reason college theatre should not be given the same respect. The fact that they are in an educational setting is not only beside the point, it is a definite advantage. They have a decent budget and state of the art equipment. They may be amateurs today, but from such places great talent is born for the world to enjoy.
VCU Theater’s Urinetown runs nor through May 1st. You can scoop tickets here.
VCU has given this Grade “C” musical, a Grade “A” production.November 14, 2016
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